Ed. Note: In service of historical accuracy, the following story contains racially charged language – and the quotes mentioned are the words of Mr. Buford himself.
Don Buford is best remembered for hitting a leadoff homer in the first game of the 1969 World Series, sending a Tom Seaver fastball over the right field fence in Municipal Stadium that propelled the Orioles to a Game One victory.
While the fun wouldn’t last for Buford or Baltimore – the Mets won the next four games to complete their improbable miracle season – that at-bat proved to be a microcosm of the Texas native’s career. Buford was the prototypical modern-day leadoff man before there was a prototypical modern-day leadoff man. He could hit for power, he could get on base, he could steal and generally cause all kinds of havoc, all while providing the blueprint that is followed by many Major League teams today.
The diminutive utility man – he is 5-foot-7 – was the spark that ignited the engine of the powerful Orioles teams that went to three consecutive World Series between 1969 and ’71. He scored 99 runs in each of Baltimore’s World Series seasons, leading the league in 1971.
“I thought I made a difference with the clubs I played for with the approach I took as a leadoff hitter,” Buford, 85, said. “I was getting on base and scoring runs and driving in runs when I had the opportunity. That was just me being me. All the way through, from when I was growing up, I was always a top of the lineup guy, whether it was leadoff or batting second.
“I knew that getting on base and scoring runs would be meaningful. You put more pressure on the opposition by being on base and being able to steal. I think there were two or three other guys that player that were in that framework, like Rickey Henderson or Rod Carew. I just had to, I think, convince the managers I played for that I had the capabilities to do that.”
Buford acknowledges that he can be viewed as a pioneer. But even pioneers have some struggles. He had to convince the likes of Eddie Stanky in Chicago and even the great Earl Weaver, to a degree, when he was dealt to Baltimore, that he could do more by being aggressive rather than waiting at the plate.
Ultimately, Buford proved his point and he found himself in a great situation in Baltimore. He had a habit of making those around him better, whether it was there, Chicago, at USC, Los Angeles City College or playing for Dorsey High in L.A. Buford points to the fact that he was an All-Star on every team for which he played and that was remains a source of pride for the Orioles Hall-of-Famer.
“In 1970 we said there is no way this getting away from us again. And that year we were just awesome.”
PROVING HIS POINT
Buford was an athlete growing up and made his mark at Dorsey High as a star. However, he had to prove just how athletic he was to some of the coaches. It didn’t take long for most of them to realize the talent they had before them.
“In high school, I never thought about playing football,” Buford said. “They used to have different classes back then, varsity, junior varsity, and then the B and C teams. I played C basketball and our team won the championship. The next year on the B team, the coach was the shop teacher. The team scrimmaged for 40 minutes and I asked the coach if he was going to let me and another man be part of the scrimmage. He told me to get out of there and I went out and talked to the B football coach.”
Buford became one of Los Angeles’ best prep stars in both football and baseball but didn’t draw many offers because of his size so he headed to Los Angeles City College, where he silenced the doubters and displayed his immense talent once again, where he proved to be the best player on the field in two sports.
Undaunted, he set about looking to move on to a bigger school and ultimately wound up at USC but not before getting rejected by the likes of UCLA, Cal and Pepperdine. When he met the Trojans’ legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux he finally received some satisfaction. He became the first African American player in the history of the USC baseball team.
“I went to USC and talked to Rod Dedeaux and he said, ‘Yea come out’ and he invited me,” Buford said. “I wasn’t on the varsity team right away but I worked my way up to it. We were all pretty good friends at USC and quite a number of guys went to pro ball and that was an encouraging factor. And, of course, Dedeaux was one of the best college coaches ever.
“He wanted you to be fundamentally sound. Don’t make mistakes. If you make a mistake don’t ever repeat it, that’s what I took from him. He also used to have a little fine book. The first fine of the day was $1 then it went to 50 cents then a quarter then a dime. The fine money would go to him and he would use it to treat us with hamburgers and stuff like that. I probably got the most fines but that made me learn.”
Buford hit .323 in two seasons [1958-59], helping lead the Trojans to a College World Series crown in 1958. His 46 career steals are 10th all-time at USC. He was equally as talented on the football field, playing two years and leading the team in rushing [306 yards in 10 games] in 1958. He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and led with 12 punt returns that season.
Baseball, however, would be his calling. He had followed the Pacific Coast League before the Dodgers moved west. When former Trojan star Ron Fairly signed with the Dodgers, it afforded Buford the opportunity to star at the collegiate level and he took advantage of the chance.
The Dodgers offered Buford what he called a “B” contract but the White Sox, spurred by scout Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston, offered him just a bit more.
“The White Sox offer was a B and an A contract kind of thing,” Buford said. “I was small in stature but Hollis Thurston and [fellow scout] Doc Bennett thought that I had enough strength to play a full season because I had played football. I negotiated with them and told them I’ll take a three-year deal at a Triple-A salary and if I’m not in the big leagues by then, they haven’t lost anything.”
The White Sox agreed to Buford’s terms and in 1960, he began his professional career.
HERE WE GO
Buford’s first Spring Training couldn’t have gone much better. He had a 21-game hitting streak, which landed him with Chicago’s San Diego affiliate in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. It also earned him a headline in the May 4th edition of The Sporting News that read “Bantam Buford’s Big Bat Beating Path to Chisox”.
“I never saw a player who was more willing to learn,” San Diego manager George Metkovich said in the story. “He can’t miss going places with that attitude. You have to pull for a young man like that.”
Buford hit .268 in 18 games with the Padres before he was shipped to Lincoln [Neb.] of the Class-B Three-I League, where he hit .289 with seven homers and 53 RBIs. His 36 steals were third best in the league. He was bumped up to the Class-A South Atlantic League in 1961 and would spend two seasons there, first at Charleston [S.C] and then in Savannah [Ga.]/Lynchburg [Va.]. He hit. 236 in in 1961 but hit .323 the following season, earning a late callup to Triple-A Indianapolis of the American Association, where he hit .111 in 12 games.
Baltimore Orioles Don Buford (9) in action, running back to first base during pickoff attempt vs Cincinnati Reds Lee May (23) at Riverfront Stadium. Cincinnati, OH 10/10/1970 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
The time Buford spent in the south also exposed him to the racism and segregation that was still running rampant throughout the country in the early 1960s.
“The integration aspect was very difficult,” Buford said. “In Savannah they had to rent a house for the three black players. That was the situation there. They moved the club to Lynchburg and of course the integration part of it was there. Our wives were supposed to be sitting in the colored section but the bathrooms in the colored section were way out in left field. Deacon Jones’ wife and my wife refused to sit out there but no one bothered them so they kind of broke that color barrier.”
Buford and his African-American teammates didn’t have it as easy on the field.
“We caught crap,” Buford said. “One of the cities we used to go to that had these three white gentlemen with megaphones – one behind home plate, one behind first base and one behind third base. As the leadoff hitter and a black athlete, they would get on the megaphone and the guy behind home plate would start with ‘Don’t throw that nigger that a fastball’. I’d get a base hit and he’d yell ‘I told you not to throw that nigger a fastball’.
“I’d be on first base and the guy over there would be yelling ‘Watch out now, that nigger is gonna steal’ and I would steal a base and he would yell ‘I told you that nigger was gonna steal’. Then the guy on third base would yell ‘Watch out now, that nigger gonna sco’’, not score. This would go on for nine innings every night. You get accustomed to it to a point when you know they aren’t going to harm you – but you go out and play your ass off.”
Buford made the full-time jump to the Triple-A American Association in 1963 and was a dynamo for Indianapolis. He led the league with 42 steals [and getting caught 24 times], 206 hits, 114 runs, at-bats , doubles , was second in batting average [.336] to Jones [.343] and third in on-base percentage [.406].
It all led to him getting called up to Chicago at season’s end. He would spend the next decade in the Major Leagues. Buford made his big-league debut on Sept. 14 at Washington, where he went 1-for-3 with a double and a run scored. He hit safely in eight of the 12 games in which he appeared and walked three times in another finishing with a .286 [12-for-42] batting average with nine runs, five RBIs and a stolen base.
Buford had a solid rookie season in ’64, splitting time between second and third base. He hit .262 with 30 RBIs and 12 stolen bases as the Sox finished second behind New York. It marked the second of three consecutive seasons in which Chicago would place second under Al Lopez, who was replaced by Eddie Stanky in 1966.
The White Sox had strong starting pitching and one of baseball’s best bullpens for much of the 60s. However, Chicago was not a high-scoring team and that, more often than not, proved to be the reason why they couldn’t overcome New York, Minnesota, Baltimore or Detroit.
Washington Nationals first base coach, Don Buford during spring training in Viero, Fla., on March 2, 2005. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
HEADING EAST AND THE POST-SEASON
Buford had arguably his best season in 1965, earning some MVP consideration after batting .283 with a career-high 166 hits. He stole 17 bases, scored 93 runs and showed glimpses of the top-of-the-order power he could provide with 10 homers. He stole 51 and 34 bases, respectively, over the next two seasons but his average dropped by 40 points, prompting his inclusion in a trade with Baltimore in November or 1967.
“When I found out I was going to Baltimore I was very happy,” Buford said. “They had an outstanding club with Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Paul Blair and those gentlemen. I said shoot, they also had the pitching and with that kind of club we had the chance to win. So, I was happy to be traded to Baltimore.
“They traded for me to be a utility man but I didn’t care where I played because I knew somehow I would get into the lineup. To me, even though my average had dropped off, I was still stealing 50 bases and scoring a lot of runs at the top of the lineup. That’s hard to beat.”
Buford was rejuvenated in Baltimore, hitting .282 with 27 steals as the Orioles finished in second place, 12 games back of eventual World Series champions Detroit. Weaver, however, had taken over for Hank Bauer midway through the season and it was the move that would set the Orioles on the path that would make the American League’s most dominant team for the next three seasons. Weaver made Buford a regular atop the lineup and it made all the difference.
“Eddie Stanky had me taking two strikes most of the season trying to get me on base,” Buford said. “It was tough convincing him and then they traded me to Baltimore and Weaver wanted me to take strike two. I asked Earl, who is hitting behind me? [Paul] Blair, [Frank] Robinson, [Boog] Powell and [Brooks] Robinson.
“You think they’re going to walk me to get to those guys. I have to hit. If I hit it makes a big difference. If I am on base, Frank is going to get more fastballs because I could steal and Blair could bunt. It just manifested to a great situation.”
DETROIT - 1967: Second baseman Dick McAuliffe (center) of the Detroit Tigers applies the tag too late to Don Buford of the Chicago White Sox during a 1967 game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images)
That great situation was on display in 1969 as Baltimore won 109 games and cruised to the newly formed American League East title, 19 games ahead of second-place Detroit. Buford hit .291 with a .397 on-base percentage. He had 161 hits, second only to the 166 he recorded in 1965, and scored 99 runs for the first of three consecutive seasons. The Orioles swept Minnesota in the new American League Championship Series – Buford had four hits, three walks and three runs scored in the three games – setting the stage for the World Series against the upstart Mets.
The Mets had Seaver, who won 25 games and was a fellow USC alumnus, on the mound for Game 1 in Baltimore. Seaver, who would go on to win the first of his three Cy Young Awards that year, was formidable but Buford sent his second pitch over the right field fence at Memorial Stadium to become the first player to leadoff a World Series with a homerun.
“I was the first one that really led off with a homer in the World Series and that was quite a feat in all the years of baseball,” Buford said. “It was a fastball. Inside and he tried to jam me. We were confident and we thought we were going to win.
“Seaver is a USC guy, too, so coach Dedeaux came out to the World Series. So, him, Seaver and his family and my family all went out to dinner and coach told Seaver that if he was winning in the seventh or the eighth inning to ‘Let Donnie hit one out’. Of course, Seaver wasn’t all for that. I hit the homerun and that night we’re out to dinner with Dedeaux again. He said to Seaver thanks for letting Donnie hit one out.”
The Mets, however, won the next game in Baltimore and then swept three in New York to complete their stunning season. Seaver was on the mound in Game 4 at Shea Stadium and was nursing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth when Brooks Robinson hit a sinking line drive to right field. Ron Swoboda made an improbable diving catch to squash a big inning. Though the tying run scored the Mets would go on to win the game in the 10th. Buford believes that catch was the turning point of the series.
Ted ``Double Duty`` Radcliff, at 102 years old, throws out the opening pitch to Washington Nationals first base coach Don Buford before a game against the Chicago Cubs on Friday, May 13, 2005. (Photo by George Bridges/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
“We were confident and we thought we were gonna win,” he said. “If Swoboda doesn’t make a diving catch with on the ball Brooks hit and that that ball gets by him, we score more runs. To me, that series was really a matter of a hit. It was the difference in whole series – winning and losing.
“Seaver and [Jerry] Koosman and those guys were good. I think they were just as good as we expected them to be. But I still felt like we were very capable of hitting their pitching.”
Buford had only one other hit in 19 more at-bats that series. And though he drew a pair of walks, the leadoff homer was the only run he scored.
1970 would prove to be a very different year. Buford had a spectacular season, hitting .272 with 17 homers and career highs in RBIs  and walks . He also scored 99 runs as the Orioles once again dominated the American League, this time winning 108 games to finish 15 games ahead of the Yankees. Baltimore swept the Twins again in the ALCS.
Buford went 3-for-7 in the ALCS with a homer, three RBI, two walks and a pair of runs scored. The World Series – which would be best remembered to the defensive show put on by Brooks Robinson – provided the validation that 1969 failed to bring. The Orioles dominated Cincinnati, winning in five games, as Buford hit another homer, drew three walks and scored three more runs.
“In 1970 we said there is no way this getting away from us again,” Buford said. “And that year we were just awesome. We had too much talent to let it get away from us more than once. Brooks had a tremendous series when we beat Cincinnati. Defensively, he made plays that you only see on the highlight reels. They were outstanding plays.
“We had the experience and each guy had the confidence in his ability to play in a big game. The guys played solid, sound baseball under Earl’s system.”
Baltimore “dropped” to 101 wins in 1971 but again easily won the East, cruising past Detroit by 12 games. Buford had another strong year in what would prove to be his penultimate season in the big leagues. He hit .290 with a career-high 19 homers while leading the league with 99 runs scored.
While the Orioles recorded their third consecutive ALCS sweep, this time over Oakland, they dropped the World Series in seven games to Pittsburgh. If the 1970 World Series is best remembered for Brooks Robinson then the ’71 Series will forever be remembered for Roberto Clemente. The Pittsburgh right fielder put on a show, hitting .414. He had 12 hits, five of which were for extra bases, and was a dynamo on the field.
“In 1971, we felt we could come back again,” said Buford, who hit .429 in the ALCS and .261 in the World Series. “We felt like we had the talent to come back. But Clemente beat us that year. You watch Clemente in that Series. He was a five-tool player in that series. He could hit, bunt, throw, run, field. He did it all as one individual. That was the difference in the series, totally. When you talk about all-around players, he’s at the top.”
THE END IN BALTIMORE AND HEADING FURTHER EAST
Baltimore’s dominant run came to an end with the 1971 Worlds Series. The O’s finished third in 1972 while Buford struggled. He hit a career-low .206 and had a career-low 408 at-bats. He wanted to continue in Baltimore but general manager Frank Cashen wanted to cut his salary. When the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, Buford, who was 35, headed to Japan.
“My goal was to play until I was 40,” Buford said. “Can you imagine being on base 40 percent of the time for three or four years and then having one off year and the general manager wanted to cut my salary $10,000. That’s why I went to Japan. You didn’t give me a $10,000 raise for four years and now you want to cut my salary because of one off year.
“I had a heated discussion with Cashen and told him to trade me or release me. He came back to me the next day and said Earl Weaver won’t release me. I said Earl doesn’t run my life. I’m not taking a cut so we came up with going to Japan. They made me such a tremendous offer; I couldn’t turn it down. I went to Japan and had the same kind of good years. I made two All-Star teams and was named one of their Top-9 players.”
Buford hit .270 with 65 homers in four JPPL seasons – three with Taiheiyo and one with Nankai. He stole 66 bases over that stretch and proved that he could still play at the level he showed for all those years in Baltimore.
When Buford returned to the U.S. after retiring following the 1976 season he went to work in the private sector. He returned to baseball in 1981 as a coach for the Giants and manager Frank Robinson and would spend several seasons there. He also managed for five seasons in the minor leagues over the next two decades, also joining Robinson again when he went to Baltimore and Washington. He was elected to the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1993.
He still watches some baseball and thinks that he’d fare well in today’s game.
“I’d probably make $20 million,” Buford said.