Yes, Dusty Baker was there, in the on-deck circle on an April night in 1974 in Atlanta when Hank Aaron hit the home run that vaulted him past Babe Ruth and into American sports history.
But on the list of historically significant moments that Baker witnessed live and in person of an iconic African-American vaulting from mere fame to legend, the Aaron moment –unfathomably –might have to rank second.
As he chronicles in his engaging new memoir “Kiss the Sky: My Weekend in Monterey at the Greatest Concert Ever” (Wellstone Books), Baker was also there on a June day in Monterey in 1967 when a guitarist named Jimi Hendrix took the stage and delivered a set that many rock fans consider one of the greatest live rock ‘n’ roll performances ever. When Hendrix dropped to his knees and set his guitar on fire, he moved into rock music immortality.
The famous Monterey Pop Festival serves as the fulcrum for the story of the early years of Baker, who achieved his own fame on the baseball diamond, first as an All-Star outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams, and later as the manager of the San Francisco Giants, as well as with other teams.
“Kiss the Sky” is Baker’s account of his life before all that, growing up in the Southern California city of Riverside, almost home to his friend and fellow rising star Bobby Bonds –Baker relates in the book that held Bobby’s son Barry in his arms as an infant. At the age of 15, he moved with his family to the Sacramento area, right about the time that Northern California was becoming the epicenter for the hippie subculture.
Reached by phone between stints working as an analyst for TBS during the Major League Baseball playoffs, Baker, who comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz Oct. 28, said he had no clue that Monterey Pop would go down in history as the one of the high marks in rock history.
“At the time, it was really no big deal,” he said. “It was just another happening. We got to concerts almost weekly some place, in Davis, at Sac State, at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, at Winterland, the Fillmore West, Golden Gate Park. We didn’t even know or think about how famous some of these people were going to be. We were just living in the times.”
In his book, Baker makes a startling confession as the primacy of music in his life. “Deep down inside,” he writes, “I don’t think of myself so much as a baseball man as I see myself as a music man, a blues man and much more than that.”
Baker grew up in a household of music lovers. His mother loved Lou Rawls and Mahalia Jackson; his dad favored Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Young Dusty was a star athlete adapting to a tough move from Riverside where he went to school among blacks, whites and Latinos, to Sacramento where he was one of the few African-Americans around.
He went to Monterey with a friend as a birthday present from his mother (he turned 18 the day before the festival was to begin), who also loaned him her car. Already, he was consumed with music –jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, from the Tower of Power to the British invasion.
But he was mostly unaware of Jimi Hendrix. Monterey Pop was a landmark event, at least as far as the West Coast was concerned. Monterey was chosen for the site of the event because it was roughly half way between the two centers of the emerging sound of the 1960s, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The festival’s lineup is now the stuff of legend: the Mamas & the Papas, the Who, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and Ravi Shankar.
Still, no act was more resonant or more memorable than Hendrix. “There was something both demonic and angelic in his intensity,” Baker writes of Hendrix in the book. At the time, Hendrix had gained a lot of attention in London where he had recorded “Are You Experienced?” with his band Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. But he was still largely unknown in his native U.S.
“Are You Experienced?” had been released just a month before Monterey Pop and his appearance at the festival turned him into an icon.
“He kind of scared me, to tell the truth,” said Baker. “But at the same time, I was attracted to it.”
Baker said that Hendrix became the center of his musical imagination at that point. Encountering Hendrix, in fact, was a turning point in young Dusty Baker’s career. The same month as the Monterey Pop Festival, Baker was drafted in baseball’s amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves. In his book, he writes of his feelings before the draft: “Please, let it be anyone but the Atlanta Braves that drafts me.”
The Braves were at the time baseball’s only franchise in the Deep South and Baker, an African-American kid who had grown up in California wanted no part of the South. What’s more, his father was dead set against him signing with Atlanta, preferring that he go to college.
Despite his misgivings, he signed with Atlanta, where he met his closest friend in baseball, outfielder Ralph Garr, and was mentored by the legendary Aaron. Still, he felt very much like a California boy. “The Braves would call me and tell me, ‘I heard you were hanging out on 10th Street (in Atlanta). That’s where the hippies hung out. There was the south side of town where all the blacks lived, and I lived there. But I was used to be around hippies. They weren’t hurting anybody. They were racially liberal, politically liberal.”
Eventually, the Braves traded Baker to the Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for –Baker’s famous number 12 was an homage to former Dodgers slugger Tommy Davis. The trade marked a homecoming for Baker, but looking back, he’s glad that things turned out the way they did.
“(Being drafted by Atlanta) was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “The last thing I wanted was to go to the South at the time. But, being with Hank, I got to meet all these people, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson. It helped me get along with people of all backgrounds, and it rounded me out as a person.” ___