When the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees take the field for Game One of the American League Championship Series tonight, Johnnie B. Baker Jr. — affectionately known as “Dusty” because, as a child, he loved to play in the alluvial dirt of Riverside, California — will be there. As the Astros’ manager places that first, fresh toothpick in his mouth and sets foot on the lightly moisturized dirt of Minute Maid Park, we’ll all have the great honor of watching the man who many say co-invented the high five continue his long, storied run in American sports. Yet somehow that isn’t even the coolest thing about this future Hall of Famer. Rather, it’s a manifestation of the cool that radiates from within him.
The 54-year MLB veteran’s first love was music, a passion that led him to forge some incredible core memories arguably more impressive than anything he’s been part of on the diamond. On a recent gameday morning, I sat down with Baker, 73, at his modest high-rise apartment in Houston to hear some of those stories.
The origin of this conversation was a last-minute invitation from WNBA champion Sydney Colson to catch an Astros game at the end of the 2021 season. Sitting in some prime seats behind home plate, I was a guest of Sydney, who was a guest of Dusty that night. After the game, we went to a nearby bar to celebrate the Astros’ victory on a rare walk-off walk — and, to my surprise, Baker himself showed up with a tote bag of wine bottles, enough for each of us to go home with one. We talked late into the night about music and life; how he saw one of Bob Marley’s final concerts, what kind of music used to get played at Studio 54, and how he got the nickname “Brave Eagle” (more on that later).
For every story Dusty had, there were a dozen laughs to go along with it, and so we stayed in touch. His memories were so deeply tied to music that I felt obligated to invite him to be a guest on The Nostalgia Mixtape, a podcast where guests like Thundercat, Gary Clark Jr, Amber Coffman, and another WNBA champion, Nneka Ogwumike, have told me those kinds of stories.
The interview took nearly a year to happen, but when Baker and I finally sat down to talk, the stories came pouring out once again. Below are some highlights from our conversation, being shared in exclusive partnership with Rolling Stone. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Dusty Baker’s love for music was born at home in Riverside, California, about two hours east of Los Angeles.
“I was the oldest of five, and music was always in our house,” he remembers. “My mom would wake us up to go to school [by playing] Lou Rawls. My dad loved the blues, he liked jazz. I didn’t understand [jazz] at the time because it wasn’t any words. I was like, ‘Where’s the sanity to it?’ I didn’t understand it until later. We [also] had Mahalia Jackson [and other] spiritual songs in our house.”
For Dusty’s parents, the old cliché was true: Rock & roll was “the devil’s music.” Or at least that’s what they told him. But one night when his parents had some friends over, Dusty snuck out of his room and heard them listening to the kind of records he would have been in major trouble for listening to. He later found those records stashed away in the back of the house — a trio of delightfully vulgar recordings that bridged explicit comedy with the popular music of the time.
“Redd Foxx,” Baker says. “He was nasty. They had Rudy Ray Moore. They had Moms Mabley.”
He had discovered the duality of man: Lou Rawls and Mahalia in the morning, Dolemite after the kids had gone to bed.
He fell in love with rock & roll after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis on TV.
As a kid, Baker wanted to play guitar, but his mom insisted he study piano instead. “My dad had an old piano that he painted pink,” he recalls. “My mom wanted me to always play the boring scales, and I had to play in front of the church like, ‘And now… Johnnie B Baker Jr. will play ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’ followed by ‘Blue Danube’. And I’m like, ‘Mom, this is not what I want to play.’”
A pivotal moment came when Baker was about 10 years old. “We had this black-and-white TV with the antenna on top,” he adds. “I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and the flames coming out the piano and his feet on top of the piano and I was like, ‘Man, this is how I want to play it.’” (We believe Baker may be recalling Lewis’ 1957 appearance on American Bandstand.)
“So [one day] I was practicing ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ man. My mom came in, I didn’t think she was home, and I had my feet on top of the piano and she had a fit. ‘What? Have you lost your mind?’ I said, ‘No, Mama, I’m playing like Jerry Lee Lewis!’ She said, ‘Your name is Dusty Baker and you got to get your feet off of that piano before I beat your butt!’”
He once smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix — but the moment had a deeper meaning for him.
Baker says he was a bit of a social vagabond as a teenager; his family had just moved from Riverside to Sacramento and he felt like he didn’t really fit in anywhere. When he first heard the alien sounds coming from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, they scared him — but in being scared, he realized that he and Jimi had something in common: most folks thought they were strange. Soon, Hendrix’s music made more sense to him than most other things in the world. He’d finally found a place to land.
“[Kids at school] used to say, ‘Hey, man, you like [Hendrix’s] music?’” Baker recalls. “I would say, ‘Yeah, man.’ [And they’d say,] ‘Man, you’re weird.’ I liked how he talked. I liked his voice. I know his music was out there, but I was out there myself. There was a time where I tried to fit in, but I could never fit in. So after a while I just accepted: Maybe I’m different, you know?”
Imagine the thrill on a young Dusty’s face when, for his eighteenth birthday, his parents got him tickets to the Monterey Pop festival, where Hendrix and the Who were set to headline. He was there on that iconic night in 1967 when Hendrix set his guitar on fire in an effort to upstage Pete Townshend. The following year, Baker saw Jimi two more times, and the second time led to a fortuitous meeting.
Hendrix was in San Francisco to play six shows in three days with the Experience at the Winterland Ballroom, so Baker and his friends, who had just seen the band at Sacramento State a few months prior, drove down to the Bay once again. From across the street outside of their crash pad, he and his buddies saw two young men smoking weed and joked with each other that one of the gentlemen resembled Hendrix. They looked a little harder and realized it was Hendrix himself.
“We were outside Carol Doda’s, which was a strip club we weren’t old enough to go in. Plus, I better not be caught dead in there. Come on,” Baker says. “So we were standing right there and saw Jimi standing outside on funky Broadway. [My friends] said, ‘Hey, man, offer Jimi a joint.’ So I did it, and then my friends came over, and that’s how we met Jimi. I never saw him again after that.”
He found some grass in the grass the day after a Janis Joplin concert.
In the fall of 1969, during his short stint playing in the Arizona Instructional League, Baker attended a Janis Joplin concert that just so happened to take place on the same field where the minor-league team’s games were played. That show turned out to be the gift that kept on giving.
“They had Janis Joplin playing at our baseball stadium — Tempe Diablo Stadium, they got a big mountain in the back,” he says. “I went to the concert that night, and all the hippies stormed the fence, but it was peaceful, man. I love hippies, by the way, ‘cause I never seen two hippies fight. They stormed the wall, knocked the wall down, and [when] we played there the next day there were roaches all over the field. They were everywhere. And the guys are, like, playing out of position, fillin’ their pockets up with roaches [laughs]. After the game, the coaches were like, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? You [were supposed to] be playing over in right-center, [not] left-center.’”
He has a collection of autographed guitars belonging to legends like B.B. King, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, and John Lee Hooker.
As his career took off, Baker found that one of his favorite blues players, John Lee Hooker, was a fan of his. One night after a Dodgers game, he wound up signing an autograph for Hooker himself, and thus began a friendship that would last until Hooker’s passing in 2001.
“John Lee invited me and one of my players over to his house,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, this is the same dude that my dad used to play [in the house].’” Hooker would eventually return the favor by signing and gifting one of his guitars to Baker.
For Baker, the connection between music and sports is obvious. “All the music guys love sports, especially baseball, and most baseball players love music,” he told me. “I was so, so lucky to be in that era and see them all: The Mamas and the Papas, Steve Miller, [Miles] Davis, Bob Marley, I mean, you name it. I saw Hendrix two or three times. We used to see Santana [so much] we were kind of tired of seeing him.”
He loves rap music now, but he initially didn’t think it would last long.
“[When] they make a bad call on us and I try to suppress some of my feelings, especially on the anger side, I [tell myself] I’m gonna get up in the morning and play 2Pac, ‘Me Against The World,’” Baker says. “Another time I said, ‘I got to be mellow,’ and I took my kids to see Snoop [Dogg] in Sacramento.”
This wasn’t always how he felt. “My last year with the [Oakland] A’s was in 1986, and my nephew and my godson came out to visit,” Baker adds. “They might have been 13, 14 years old. And the [A’s] bat boy who was about 18, 19 years old says, ‘Hey, they got a rap concert at Oakland Coliseum tonight. Is it OK if I take your nephews?’ I said, ‘Yeah… I think you guys need to go, because this might be the last rap concert you see, because rap will be dead in a couple of years.’ [Laughs.] I was square as hell! And here I am today listening to it.”
(We did some research on this, and think it’s safe to say that the rap concert at the Coliseum was likely the Oakland stop of Run-DMC’s Raising Hell Tour, with billed support from LL Cool J, Whodini, and unbilled support from the R&B group Timex Social Club and a rap trio called Beastie Boys that had yet to release their first album.)
He was given the nickname “Brave Eagle” when visiting with members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana.
“I’m still hangin’ with the Cheyenne,” he says. “They were just here [in Houston]. They were my guests at the ball game. They gave me some holy water. They gave me some warpaint, some red warpaint that [I] used before the game. And they also gave me some sage to burn just in case. Some real dynamite sage.”
DJ Khaled’s “God Did” caught Dusty’s ear in the clubhouse recently thanks to Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker.
“I went into the clubhouse the other day, because when the clubhouse is quiet right before the game, I don’t like it,” Baker says. “I was like, ‘Turn the music up, dude. Get yourself psyched, get yourself ready.’ And I heard this song. I was like, ‘Dang, I ain’t never heard that one. I like the heck out of that one.’ I heard Lil Wayne and I heard Jay-Z and I said, ‘Man, who’s jamming that right there?’ And it was [Kyle] Tucker! I’m like, ‘Dang, Tuck! That’s your cut right there?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, man!’ We got some hip dudes in this world.”