If you’re not familiar with Don Buford, perhaps the first thing you should know is that he was quietly very good. He averaged 4.5 WAR from 1965-1971, and in the last three of those seasons he logged a .405 OBP for Baltimore Orioles teams that captured American League pennants. A speedy switch-hitter who spent the first half of his career with the Chicago White Sox, Buford had a 117 wRC+ and 200 stolen bases from 1963-1972. He played on three 100-plus-win teams, and four more that won 90-plus. A spark plug throughout his career, he never played for a losing team.
Prior to breaking into pro ball in 1960, Buford excelled on both the diamond and the gridiron at the University of Southern California. USC’s first African-American baseball player, he followed his 10 big-league seasons with four more in Japan. Then came Stateside stints as a coach, manager, and front office executive, as well as time spent running MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California.
David Laurila: You played both baseball and football at USC. Where did you see your future at that time?
Don Buford: “I was leaning toward baseball, because of my size. I was 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, so I didn’t see much of a future in football. I had an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers — they were interested in me as a kickoff and punt return guy — but I wasn’t interested. That’s the suicide squad in football.”
Laurila: What do you remember about breaking into professional baseball?
Buford: “Coming out of college, I thought I was well-prepared as far knowledge of the game, because I’d had such an outstanding coach in Rod Dedeaux. He was a legendary college coach. We won the NCAA championship in 1958.
“I had offers from the Dodgers, the Yankees, and the White Sox. The Dodgers and Yankees were offering such a minimum — a $1,000 bonus and a $400 salary — and coming out of college, I said, ‘No way; I could make that teaching school.’ That’s why I selected the White Sox. Hollis Thurston and Doc Bennett were the scouts who had followed me, and they felt I had the ability to make it.”
Laurila: You were a college-educated African-American man from the West Coast, and your first minor league seasons were in the South. Did you encounter any issues?
Buford: “My first year was actually in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when I was sent there I couldn’t find lodging. They weren’t renting apartments to African Americans. I ended up staying with a family. The lady’s name was Miss Botts. She was the representative of Aunt Jemima Pancakes. She had a basement apartment and I stayed in her home.
“When I played in Savannah, Georgia [in 1962], we had three African Americans on the team. It was Jim Hicks, Deacon Jones, and myself. The owner of the club had to rent us a house, and furnish it, so that we’d have a place to live.”
Laurila: Minnie Minoso was on the team during your rookie season with the White Sox.
Buford: “Yes. Minnie Minoso, Jim Landis, and Floyd Robinson were three of our outfielders. What I remember about [Minoso] is how tough he was. He led the league in getting hit by pitches several times. I used to say to him, ‘Minnie, if they hit me like that, I don’t think I’d be able to play.’ He said, ‘Aw, it just makes me money.’”
Laurila: Getting on base was one of your strengths. One of your managers in Chicago had been known for that in his playing days. What do you remember about playing for Eddie Stanky?
Buford: “Starting out, he said that if I could steal 20 bases he’d buy me a pair of alligator shoes. I told him, ‘I’ll steal 20 bases before halfway through the season.’ True enough, I did that. I said to him, ‘Hey, I’ll steal you another 20, but you’ll have to buy me a suit.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy you a suit if you steal another 20.’ I ended up with 51 on the season, so I got alligator shoes and a suit from Eddie Stanky.”
Laurila: What was it like playing for Al Lopez?
Buford: “He was an outstanding manager, and really big on fundamentals. He expected you to know how to play. When you made a mistake, Tony Cuccinello would come over, touch you on the shoulder, and say, ‘Al Lopez wants you to come up.’ He’d be sitting at the very end of the dugout, toward home plate, and you’d sit down next to him. He’d say, ‘Do you know what you did wrong?’ If you didn’t, he would explain it to you. If you did know, he would say, ‘OK, then. Don’t make that mistake again.’ And you didn’t make that mistake again.”
Laurila: How did Lopez compare to Earl Weaver?
Buford: “Al Lopez sat in the dugout, quiet. He’d be sitting there with his arms folded, observing everything that was going on. Earl Weaver was more feisty. He was always moving around and chattering. He’d be yelling at the umpires. If he felt the team was down, he’d yell at the umpires to try to encourage us to play better. I think sometimes the umpires would call more strikes, too.”
Laurila: Weaver was also known for being a fan of pitching and the three-run homer.
Buford: “Yes, he liked those aspects. And he also wanted the front-part-of-the-lineup guys like myself to get on base for Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Brooks Robinson. One of the things I’d done with Stanky — Ken Berry and I led the team in hitting that year at .241 — was take two strikes. Eddie had me doing it the whole year. That’s the honest truth.”
Laurila: That’s a hard way to hit.
Buford: “Tell me about it. Do you remember Ed Runge, the umpire? Ed Runge never liked long games. One day I was leading off, and the first pitch was about six inches inside. He called it a strike. I said, not even looking back, ‘Ed, that’s not a strike.’ The next pitch was about six inches outside. ‘Strike two!’ I stepped out of the box and said, ‘Ed, what’s going on? What are you doing?’ He said, ‘You have to take two strikes anyway; I’m not letting you slow up my game.’
Laurila: He knew about the taking two strikes.
Buford: “It was all over the league. Every team knew it. Fortunately, it was just for that one year.”
Laurila: You mentioned Ken Berry. How did he and Paul Blair compare as center fielders?
Buford: “Ken was good, but Blair was just outstanding. I’ve never seen a guy that played as shallow as he did, cover as much ground, and go back to the wall. He’d climb the wall, and never injure himself doing it.”
Laurila: If I’m not mistaken, Blair did have an injury that impacted him as a hitter.
Buford: “He got hit in the head [by a Ken Tatum pitch, in 1970] and after that was kind of tender at the plate. He kind of bailed a little bit on pitches. Before he got hit he wasn’t that way, but after he did, he had that tendency.”
Laurila: Who was the best player you played with?
Buford: “The best in all phases of the game — hitting, running, bunting, base stealing, defense — was Roberto Clemente. I played with him in winter ball one year. As far as an all-around player, he was the best.”
Laurila: What about guys you played with in the big leagues? I’m guessing that would be Frank Robinson?
Buford: “Frank, yes. By all means.”
Laurila: How did getting traded to the Orioles impact your career?
Buford: “I’ll tell you how I got traded. At the end of ’67, Eddie Stanky asked if anyone wanted to come into his office to talk about the season and discuss what we could improve on. I went in to talk to him, thinking it was a good thing to do.
“That season we were in first place at the All-Star break. Then we got Ken Boyer and Rocky Colavito. Eddie was trying to get the long ball, but they didn’t produce. The guys who had been getting it done were Tom McCraw, myself — all of us who were running hard and stealing bases, helping us win those 2-to-1, 3-to-1, type of ballgames. I said to Eddie, ‘When you made those deals, you took the speed out of the lineup; you changed your whole philosophy of managing.’ I don’t think he liked hearing that. When I went home that night, I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to get traded’ I don’t think I’ll be back with the White Sox next year.’ True enough, they traded me to the Orioles.”
Laurila: You went from a good team to even better team.
Buford: “Right. They’d won the pennant in 1966, they had Frank, and Boog, and Brooks, and all those guys. And they had pitching, too. Jim Palmer. Dave McNally. Tom Phoebus was there at the time. I thought, ‘Shoot, we have a great team; I’m happy to be going to the Orioles.
“I think they traded for me to be a utility player. When I went over, that’s how Hank Bauer was using me. We had Davey Johnson at second, and Brooks at third, so I wasn’t playing a lot. I told Bauer that I had played some outfield, but he wouldn’t play me in the outfield.
“At mid-season, Earl Weaver took over as manager. He knew I could play the outfield, because that’s what I did when I played in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was managing a team in the same league at the time. Blair was struggling, so Earl started me in center field. I never got out of the lineup after that.”
Laurila: You mentioned Jim Palmer. I assume you know you had a lot of success against him (seven for 13, with three walks, and no strikeouts).
Buford: “Yes, I remind him of that. He doesn’t say anything.”
Laurila: You went eight for 20 with five home runs against Bert Blyleven. How were you able to hit him so well?
Buford: “I could read his delivery. I could read that there was a little difference when he was throwing his curveball. That’s something I tried to pass along to some of my teammates, but they couldn’t see it. But I sat in the dugout studying pitchers and watching what they’d do. I was a leadoff hitter, and they didn’t want to walk me and have me steal second base, so probably 80% of the time I either got a fastball or a slider.”
Laurila: What is your most memorable home run?
Buford: “One of the most memorable was against the White Sox… actually, there were two that day (May 31, 1971). I hit one off Joe Horlen into the lower deck in old Comiskey Park, then Bart Johnson came in and I hit one into the upper deck. It was a fastball. Bart Johnson threw hard; he was primarily a hard-thrower.”
Laurila: I was kind of expecting you to say it was the one against Tom Seaver, leading off the 1969 World Series.
Buford: “That was obviously memorable, because it was my first at-bat in a World Series. The first pitch he threw me was a fastball in. I hit with the bat on my shoulder — I had it leaning flat on my shoulder and would swing from there — and I knew he thought he could jam me. And he’s a USC guy, too. Heh, heh, heh. He’s a Trojan.”
Laurila: What led to you playing in Japan?
Buford: “My last year with the Orioles, I had an off season with my batting average and they were looking to bring up Al Bumbry. Don Baylor was already there, as well. But Earl didn’t want to trade me. I told him, ‘Earl, it’s OK; I wouldn’t mind going to another ball club at this point.’ He didn’t want to do it. And Frank Cashen, the general manager, wanted to cut my salary $10,000. There was no way I was going to take a $10,000 cut. I told him, ‘You never gave me a $10,000 raise in the years I got on base .400 percent of the time, and now you want to cut me $10,000?’ I wasn’t going to take that cut.
“We had a tremendous argument. Finally, he said, ‘OK, we’ll trade you.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ Then, the next day he comes back and says, ‘Earl won’t trade you.’ I told Frank that they could release me. He said they wouldn’t do that either. I said, ‘Well, I’m not coming back to the Orioles.’
“A little later he came back and said they had an offer for me to go to Japan. I said, ‘You can’t negotiate a contract for me to go to Japan. You can release me and I can negotiate my own contract to go to Japan.’ That’s how that ended up. I worked out my own contract and signed to go there. I made almost twice as much money as I did playing for the Orioles, so I couldn’t turn that down.”
Laurila: Did you enjoy playing in Japan?
Buford: “I loved it.”
Laurila: Did you learn to speak any Japanese?
[Buford responded with a few sentences in Japanese, followed by a laugh.]
Laurila: I take that to mean ‘yes.’
Buford: “Yes, I did. Not to the degree that I could go over and be a lawyer or the representative of a company, but enough to get by. I could do things like go shopping and communicate with the fans. We did have an interpreter, too.
“My first year in Japan it was Roger Repoz and me. We were on the same team, and then they let Roger go and Frank Howard came over. Frank got hurt right as the season was starting, and they brought in Matty Alou. Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers was also over there, with another club.”
Laurila: Changing direction, you were in the big leagues during the 1967 and 1968 riots. Were you directly impacted by those?
Buford: “Not really, because when things were really bad I wasn’t in the city. The impact — the influence — related to that was things I did as a player in the minor leagues. Because of speaking up, we started to stay at the hotels where our teams did. Like I said earlier, we had other lodging when I first got to the minors. And when I played [for Charleston], Jim Lynn, Deacon Jones, and I stayed at a Black-owned motel. The rest of the team stayed at a hotel downtown. We said, ‘We’re a team. If we can’t stay with the team, we’re not part of a team.’ The front office diligently made it so that we could stay at the hotel, although it was three quarters of the season before that happened.”
Laurila: As far as we’ve come since that time, there are obviously still some serious issues of racism in our society. What are your thoughts on what we’ve been experiencing in recent weeks?
Buford: “My feelings are that it’s an engrained situation, going all the way back to slavery times. For people who have been born in the South — the North as well, but mostly the Southern areas — that doesn’t really change in a short period of time. I didn’t think it would be 200 years. We’ve had people in leadership who are advocates of making changes, but then you’ve got people who aren’t advocates of making those changes, for whatever reason. Eventually we’ll get to where everybody is treated equally.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.