Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Michael Bailor was born on July 10, 1951 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. (The excellent SABR Biography about Bailor and the Earl McRae biography from the Montreal Gazette provides the background information here.) Bailor was born to a third-generation Polish immigrant family whose name was changed from Bialkowski to Bailor. Bob's father, also named Bob, was a train engineer for his entire life -- completing a three-generation family tradition of working for the railroad companies in Connellsville. Connellsville was also the hometown of Notre Dame and Chicago Bears football legend Johnny Lujack, and that fact gave town kids hope that a Polish kid with athletic talent could get out of the Southeastern Pennsylvania mountains and make something of himself.
Bob Jr. was brought up by his family with a baseball bat and glove in hand. He learned to hunt and fish at an early age as well. Bailor's father told the story in 1977 of how little Buzz (as he was called in Connellsville) loved baseball so much that he wanted to play catch in the snow with his dad. Bob's dad's words oozed parental pride from the pages of the Montreal Gazette profile: "Y'see, this is the first time it's happened to a baseball player. We've had our football stars, Jim Braxton and Bo Scott? Right from Connellsville. But this is the first time a baseball player has gone from Connellsville to the majors. Why, the old ball patches are going to be crawlin' with kids this spring."
Bailor starred in basketball for his hometown Geibel High School, and he played baseball for American Legion teams in the area during that time as well. That's right -- he did not play high school baseball because his school did not have a team. After he graduated high school in 1969 and to avoid going to Vietnam due to his low draft number, Bailor enrolled at California State College near Pittsburgh and, not having been drafted by baseball with the same vigor as Uncle Sam's draft (that would be, at all), Bailor resigned himself to a life without baseball as an occupation.
But, his American Legion manager, August Herman Welsh, arranged for him to play on a tournament team for a tournament that Welsh knew would draw a Baltimore Orioles scout. Welsh's friend was the scout, and Welsh hoped that Bailor would impress the scout enough to get a contract. That's exactly what happened, and Bailor signed with the Orioles as an undrafted free agent.
After signing, Bailor slowly and steadily rose up through the Orioles system. He tried his hand at pitching in his first season in the Appalachian League with Bluefield, and that went horribly, horribly wrong -- 1 inning, 7 hits, 2 walks, 8 earned runs, and 1 strikeout for a 72 ERA -- but his hitting was pretty good. He never hit for power at any point in the minor leagues, but his batting average was always around .290 and his OBP hovered steadily around .350.
His 1973 season was cut very short by a severe hamstring pull, however, and that year may have been pivotal for his later development as well. Because of that injury, Bailor may have missed out on a 1974 call-up to the big club. As Bailor told The Pittsburgh Press in 1977, 1973 was, "[a] pivotal year. Baltimore was going to need a utilityman the next season. Tim Nordbrook . . . had a good year, and he got the job."
Bailor got his first taste of major league action in 1975 with the Baltimore Orioles in a September call-up. His family was rightfully proud, as the Montreal Gazette article described:
As soon as the season ended, he went back home to Connellsville, happier than he had ever been in his life, convinced the dream of a lifetime was close. His mother stuck a color photograph of him in his Oriole uniform on the refrigerator door and his dad wore an Oriole cap when taking his train down to Cumberland.That winter, after three months of baseball inactivity, he was called and asked to report to Venezuela to play second base for Magallanes. He was inserted immediately into the lineup at an unfamiliar position and ended up injuring his shoulder -- an inflamed rotator cuff, according to Dr. Robert Kerlan, to whom Bailor was referred by his teammate Jim Palmer.
The shoulder issue effectively ended his Orioles career. While he made the Orioles roster in 1976, he was unable to play in the field. Add in the fact that the Orioles had an infield with Bobby Grich, Mark Belanger, and Brooks Robinson, and you have the reason that, along with the shoulder issue, the Orioles chose to leave Bailor exposed in the 1976 Expansion Draft. The Seattle Mariners picked Ruppert Jones as their first expansion pick. The Blue Jays then selected Bob Bailor, making Bailor the first ever Toronto Blue Jay major league player.
Bailor became an instant fan favorite for the Blue Jays. He went on an early season hitting tear, batting .381 in late May and trailing only all-time great Rod Carew, who was flirting with .400 that year. Bailor ended up having his best season in the majors in his rookie year. In 122 games (523 plate appearances), Bailor went up to the plate swinging and making contact. He slashed at .310/.335/.403, walking just 17 times and striking out a meager 26 times. He stole 15 bases, hit 5 triples, and hit 5 of his career 9 HR in 1977. He did all that while appearing in 54 games at shortstop, 15 games in leftfield, 47 games in centerfield, and 2 games in right field.
Bailor's versatility kept him employed in major league baseball, serving both as a curse and as a godsend. The only positions at which he did not appear in the major leagues were first base (being 5'11" tall apparently led managers not to put him there) and catcher -- and he hit all the other positions including pitcher (3 games) during the 1979 season alone for Toronto. In his biography for the Fayette County (PA) Sports Hall of Fame, Bailor is quoted as saying that he ended up using his versatility was probably the reason why the Blue Jays selected him:
I think the big reason Toronto took me in the expansion draft was because I could play everywhere. I started out playing shortstop with them, but then when they started building the foundation and getting a new player - well, then I'd move somewhere else - third base and second, centerfield, all over the place. Well, finally they got good and they traded me.Bailor became a New York Met, traded to the Mets for pitcher Roy Lee Jackson and stayed in New York for three years, where once again he played all over the diamond and hit about .265 with no power and a little speed -- stealing 20 bases in 1982 and 18 in 1983.
His versatility led to all kinds of compliments from his then-manager, former Brewers manager George Bamberger, who called Bailor "a regular [who] doesn't have one position. He plays wherever I need him." For his part, Bailor would have preferred one position: "My dad told me the more positions you can play, the better. But it has its drawbacks, too. You never get a starting position."
The small town boy in Manhattan felt out of place but his next move did not make his world get much smaller -- making his way to Los Angeles as the player-to-be-named-later in a trade that involved Sid Fernandez going to the Mets in exchange for Carlos Diaz. When asked around that time about being the utilityman going to the Dodgers, Bailor quipped in response: "I hate to use the term 'utility player.' It sounds like a guy who changes light bulbs."
If Bailor felt out of place in Manhattan, he felt like a TV star going to Los Angeles. Well, maybe a TV character, as he said in 2010: "Once again, I went from New York City to LA. I felt like Jed Clampett going out there." Bailor stayed for two seasons with the Dodgers until the owners' decision to go to a 24-man roster cost him his job. He was the last cut from the Dodgers in 1986, and Tommy Lasorda called around to try to find him a major league job. Finding only Triple-A assignments, Bailor decided to call it a career.
Mustache Check: Being a member of the utility man's brigade must have meant that Bailor kept clean-shaven as a union rule of sorts. No mustache here.
Bailor's .310 AVG in 1977 for the expansion Blue Jays was at that time the highest batting average for any player on a first-year expansion team. I think it is still a record for the highest rookie batting average on a first-year expansion team, but it is not the highest average for any player on a first-year expansion team any more. In 1993 in the thin air and expansive outfield in Colorado, Andres Galarraga hit .370.
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Bailor registered in my consciousness as a kid only to the extent that he was an original Blue Jay. For whatever reason, I remembered him for his 1979 season when he appeared regularly in the Toronto outfield in right field and, therefore, I always classify him as an outfielder mentally.
Also for whatever reason, I have a memory of him playing well against Milwaukee. The numbers don't necessarily support that or deny that -- I mean, he was just about at his own career averages as a player against the Brewers, and it's not like he hit one of his 9 career homers against Milwaukee. He did walk 8 times against the Brew Crew against only 1 strikeout, so perhaps I remember Bob Uecker making some line about how tough Bailor was to get out.
Since his retirement from baseball, Bailor was around baseball for a little while before getting away from the game entirely. When the Blue Jays traded him, Pat Gillick told Bailor that "if any when [Bailor] decided to retire as an active player, we would certainly welcome him back in an on-field position."
After taking a year away from baseball after his Dodgers experience "mostly fishing and water-skiing in Utah", Bailor accepted a position managing the Dunedin Blue Jays in the Florida State League. He moved up to Syracuse in 1988 and spent four years as the Chiefs' manager. When the Jays made a managerial change in 1989, he interviewed for the job that went to Cito Gaston.
Bailor then moved up to the big-league club as the first-base coach in 1992 through 1995, where he won two World Series rings. When the Jays fired Gaston after the 1995 season, they fired all of his coaches along with him. Bailor looked for a job for a little while, but then decided to retire. He and his wife -- a flight attendant for American Airlines whom he met in Los Angeles -- make their home in Palm Harbor, Florida. Bailor still hunts and fishes in his old hometown and he still has a home there.
Bailor is small town through and through. Indeed, as he said in 2010, "if it were up to me, I would probably be in Connellsville full time."
He's a splendid contrast to his fellow Pennsylvanian, Doc Medich.