Harold Baines was known for two things as a baseball player: being an extremely talented hitter and being about as talkative as pine tar. It’s difficult to discuss one part of him without discussing the other. The only thing more difficult is getting him to discuss any of it at length.
“My personality was more I’ll show you than tell you,’’ he said. “I was not a guy that likes to speak in front of people, which is not a bad thing. But I like to show you between the lines.’’
The former White Sox outfielder and designated hitter will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday, and while we wait on the edge of our seats to hear what this man of few words and many accomplishments will say about himself in his speech, we’ll let other people describe him.
Harold Baines, in their own words.
In 1982, Baines’ third season in the big leagues, Sox players started a kangaroo court. This was a baseball tradition in which a committee of players would address teammates’ transgressions, real or imagined, and levy fines. Baines’ excellent play and few words weren’t enough to avoid punishment.
“Ed Farmer was the judge,’’ former Sox first baseman Mike Squires said. “Harold had stolen second base in a game, and as he was sliding, he sort of popped up and clapped his hands because he was safe. For Harold, that was an unreal reaction. Farmer, who had the great sense of humor, fined him for showing too much emotion. Everybody got a kick out of that.’’
For all his quiet ways, Baines entered Chicago’s consciousness with much fanfare. The Sox made him the first overall pick in the 1977 draft. There is no hiding when you’re the top pick, no place to find cover, but then-Sox owner Bill Veeck went further, making sure all eyes would be locked on the shy Baines.
“I just remember when he was drafted, Mr. Veeck actually made the statement that Harold was going to stop around here for about 20 years and then go directly to the Hall of Fame,’’ Squires said.
Veeck was partly right. Baines spent 22 years in the majors, 14 of them with the Sox. He hit .289, had 2,866 hits, homered 384 times and was considered one of the best clutch hitters of his era. It didn’t take long to figure out he was going to be a star. The sound of the ball off his bat was his idea of a filibuster.
“You could just tell as time went on that Harold was going to be The Man,’’ Squires said.
Many former teammates say that if Baines hadn’t struggled with injuries through his career, he would have been a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Instead, it took the Hall’s Today’s Game Committee, made up of Hall of Famers, executives, media members and a baseball historian, to select him 18 years after his career ended.
“You go back and talk to the guys in the 1980s and the 1990s, everybody has the same respect for Harold as a hitter — a dangerous hitter,’’ said former Sox star Paul Konerko, who played with Baines in 2000 and 2001. “Regardless of the numbers — and he’s got them — but even guys that have a lot better numbers, they were not better hitters than Harold. Harold was revered as a unique, great hitter. It’s not just about the numbers. It was more than that.’’
No one swung a bat quite like Baines did, with a big leg kick and lots of movement in his hands and arms. A swing with that many moving parts shouldn’t result in many hits. It made for a mystery movie more than it did an instructional video. But it worked. From 1982 to 1999, he hit below .271 just once. That was him. Reliable. And reliably reserved.
When the Orioles traded Baines back to the Sox on July 29, 2000, he was 41. Konerko was 24 and finally starting to feel comfortable in the majors — to a point.
“There were a couple situations where I felt like a sixth-grader hanging out with college kids,’’ he said. “It was that way at first with Harold. I got nervous around him at that point. But after you talk to him, it was fine. Some guys are going to try to make young guys feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t Harold. He was way beyond that kind of stuff.
“He was old-school. He wasn’t going to sit around and b.s. around. He was going to say what needed to be said. These days, there’s a lot of noise and a lot of talk. Harold comes from a different generation of player: You’re coming in here to do a job. We’re going to be serious about it and get it done. I loved that.
“The stories about his lack of commentary on what was going on were great. He’d have huge hits and big homers and all that, and it was kind of a one-word answer in front of the media. It was classic. I loved it. There was no fluff. It was all about getting the job done.’’
In 1999, Konerko’s first season on the South Side and his first as a full-time starter, the Sox were playing in Baltimore. Baines stepped to the plate for the Orioles in the 10th inning against reliever David Lundquist. The bases were loaded.
“He hit a walk-off grand slam,’’ Konerko said. “That was when Baltimore was still on the tail end of being the team they were in the mid- to late-90s. The place was packed, the place was electric. The music, everything. I was young. I was kind of on the field and playing the game but still a fan of the game at the same time, which is probably not [what] you want to be doing. But I was in awe. I couldn’t imagine getting as good to where you could just be that big in that type of situation with that many people.
“It looked easy to him.’’
Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Baines’ knees were an ongoing problem. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that one of the people he was closest to was Herm Schneider, the Sox’ head trainer from 1979 to 2018.
“He and I spent a lot of time together with his injuries,’’ Schneider said. “We would get up in the morning on the road, and we’d go have a cup of coffee together. We’d go walking around town. We’d go in stores and see what was on sale.’’
Why did Baines, with a clubhouse full of teammates, choose to spend so much time with the trainer?
“He doesn’t drink, I don’t drink,’’ Schneider said. “I think we had a little bit in common, not necessarily in a baseball sense because I was a trainer and he was a player. But we had a lot of things in common. We both enjoyed getting up early. We both enjoyed working out on the road. Then we’d have a cup of coffee or breakfast. Then we’d walk to the ballpark. We just spent a lot of time together.’’
Baines started having knee problems in 1986, and they eventually pushed him from the outfield to designated hitter. No one event caused the issue, Schneider said. Baines’ right knee swelled up one day, and he eventually would need surgeries on both knees.
“Year in, year out, he’d go out there and put up the numbers,’’ Schneider said. “That’s why he was able to get to the Hall of Fame. But if he didn’t have a couple of those knee surgeries that he had, he would have easily had over 3,000 hits. There’s no question. His legs didn’t allow him to play for a number of games and days. He lost that time.’’
Baines’ selection to the Hall has been heavily criticized. Induction, critics say, isn’t supposed to be about how long a player’s career was or about what a player might have done had he stayed healthy. But you probably won’t hear about what might have been from Baines. You won’t hear much from him at all, which, in its own way, is refreshing.
“I always tell people this: Harold is like that old E.F. Hutton commercial: When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen,’’ Schneider said. “That’s Harold Baines. When he has something to say, he says it. He minces no words. He says what’s on his mind at that time. There’s no extra conversation. He doesn’t dilly-dally around. He shoots from the hip.
“And Harold Baines misses nothing. He sees everything and takes in everything. He just keeps it to himself. If you ask him a question, you better be ready for the answer that he’s going to give you. You either like it or you may not like it, but he’s going to say what’s on his mind.
“I don’t know if anybody really gets to know him. I think I’m probably as close as it gets to getting to know him.’’
Know this about Baines: From 1993-2001, he played under a series of one-year contracts. Don’t cry for him. He made at least $1 million every year during that span. But most players had the comfort of multiyear deals. Then again, most players didn’t have Baines’ knees.
“That speaks to a lot of things — just being underappreciated — but also how tough you have to be, how mentally strong you have to be,’’ Konerko said. “Just closing your mouth and going out and performing every year. To put up good years says a lot about who he is as a human being, just going out and doing your job and being like, ‘All right, I’ll do it again. And I’ll do it again. No guarantees.’ … That’s how good he was.’’
Before he made the big-league club, the Sox let him take batting practice before a game in Baltimore, about 70 miles from where he grew up in Maryland. Schneider was there that day when a quiet kid with a huge Afro stepped in the cage, and he’ll he there Sunday when a quiet man with a lot less hair steps to the podium in Cooperstown.
“I will probably have a tear in my eye,’’ Schneider said. “I love him like a brother. Honest to gosh, I do. To see where he’s come from the day he visited us in Baltimore and taking batting practice to going into the Hall of Fame? Oh my God, it’s giving me chills just talking about it. So proud of him.’’