One of the finest pure hitters of his time, Baines was a 12-year-old little leaguer in Easton, MD when he caught the eye of White Sox owner Bill Veeck. When Chicago made him the first pick in the June 1977 draft, GM Paul Richards said Baines “was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so.”
The expectations placed much pressure on the soft-spoken 20-year-old when he became a regular in 1980. It wasn’t until 1982 that he began to produce (hitting 25 home runs with 105 RBI) and he soon developed a reputation that would follow him throughout his career as one of the game’s best clutch performers and a lethal hitter with men on base.
In 1983, the sweet-swinging lefty with a batting style reminiscent of Mel Ott led the AL with a then-major-league record 22 game-winning RBI. Surrounded by a powerful lineup that also featured Greg Luzinski, Carlton Fisk and Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle, Baines’s 99 runs batted in that season matched the White Sox’ major-league-leading win total. The Sox ran away with the Western Division Crown, but fell to the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles in the LCS. During the four-game series, Baines registered just two hits in sixteen at bats.
In the years that followed, Baines would post steady numbers for White Sox teams that never recaptured their success in 1983. From 1984 (when he slammed a career high 29 home runs) through 1987, Baines never hit below .293 or failed to drive in more than 88 runs or hit 20 homers.
On May 9, 1984, his home run off Milwaukee’s Chuck Porter ended the major leagues’ longest game ever by time (8:06) and the AL’s longest game by innings (25). The bat went to the Hall of Fame.
In 1986 a serious knee injury would require two operations and force Baines onto the disabled list. It was the first of a series of knee problems that would plague him throughout his career and force him to be used almost exclusively as a designated hitter.
But leaving the outfield never hindered Baines’ effectiveness at the plate. In 1987, his 155th career home run set a White Sox record (since broken by Frank Thomas) and in June of that season he set another Chicago record with 36 RBIs in one month. After slipping to .277 with 13 homers in 1988, Baines rebounded with a vengeance in 1989. But on July 29th the rebuilding White Sox (who would finish in last place with a woeful 69-92 record) dealt Baines and his .321 average to Texas for shortstop Scott Fletcher, left-handed hurler Wilson Alvarez, and a slender young Dominican outfielder named Sammy Sosa. The Rangers had used twenty-five players in the DH slot since they released Larry Parrish in the middle of the 1988 season.
For Baines, the trade marked the beginning of the second half of his career, one that saw him enjoy a series of productive seasons for a number of teams. Traded to Oakland in late August of 1990, he got his first taste of post-season action since 1983, batting .357 as Oakland swept Boston in the playoffs. In Game Three of the World Series, Baines launched a two-run homer in a futile effort to prevent the Reds from pulling off a surprising sweep of the A’s. The following year — the first since 1988 spent entirely with one team — Baines rapped out a .295 average and added 20 homers and 95 RBIs season for the fourth-place A’s. Although he posted the lowest average in his career (.253) in 1992, Oakland returned to the ALCS. Baines stung the ball at a .440 clip and belted a ninth-inning homer off Jack Morris to win Game One, but the Athletics lost to Toronto in six games.
Before the 1993 season, the 34-year-old DH returned to his native Maryland when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for minor-league pitchers Bobby Chouinard and Allen Plaster. In three seasons with Baltimore, neither age nor persistent knee problems could slow his offensive production. It was said that Baines could hit .300 with both knees broken; at times when he could barely run the bases, his sharp eye, quick bat and level swing still posted impressive numbers. In the three years from 1993 through 1995, Baines batted .313, .294 and .299, while his 24 home runs in 1995 were the third-highest total of his career.
Baines returned to the White Sox as a free agent in 1996, where he enjoyed another banner year, blasting 22 homers and driving in 95 runs while batting .311. On his way to similar numbers the next season, Baines found himself traded back to Baltimore in July of 1997 to pad the lineup of the AL East leading Orioles. Reaching the postseason for the fourth time in his career, Baines again distinguished himself, hitting .400 with a home run off Seattle’s Jamie Moyer in the Division Series, and .353 with a homer off Jaret Wright during the Orioles’ six-game loss to Cleveland in the League Championship Series. In 1998, the 39-year-old Baines hardly missed a beat, driving in 57 runs while batting an even .300 in 104 games for the Orioles. However, the normally placid Baines was ejected from a game for the first time in his long career.
Although he played his first six seasons as an outfielder, Baines has driven in more runs as a designated hitter than anyone in American League history. Entering the 2000 season, Baines’ 373 career homers were second only to Al Kaline‘s 399 among players without a thirty-homer season.