Thursday, January 24, 2013

Former Major Leaguer Don Buford Keeps the Dreams Alive

Don Buford is the new director of MLB's
Urban Youth Academy. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Bill Dwyre, L.A. Times
January 22, 2013

The 75-year-old Buford, who played football and baseball at Dorsey and was part of the famed Orioles of the late 1960s, comes out of retirement to be the director of MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton.

It is early Monday morning, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But Don Buford is not standing on a stage and talking about having a dream.

That's not his style. Besides, he has already lived one himself, the kind Dr. King preached about.

Buford has a new job, which is to enhance dreams for others. Few could be better suited.

The former major league baseball star will turn 76 on Feb. 2. He lives in Sherman Oaks and was happily retired to a life of four rounds of golf a week. The family was raised, he had done his work, his stature as a major league player for the White Sox and the Orioles over 10 seasons was established. Life was summertime, and the living was easy.

His was a story of success and good fortune, at a time when minority athletes swam upstream a lot.

He played high school football at Dorsey, a running back weighing 150 pounds, "soaking wet," he says.

He also played infield on Dorsey's baseball team, although the term "infield" was questionable.

"Just dirt," Buford says.

He wrote lots of letters to big schools, even visited UCLA and a few others, but was turned down. This was 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the major leagues' color barrier. Walls remained up.

Asked whether the college turndowns were because he was 150 pounds or because he was black, his eyes flash and he says, "Both."

He went to L.A. City College for a year, was recruited off the campus to play quarterback two weeks before the first game with Pierce College, knew little about the position and ended up making a long touchdown run for a 6-0 win.

"Quarterback," he says, laughing. "I didn't throw for 600 yards. I didn't even throw for six."

The next year, he walked on to the USC baseball team. He asked legendary coach Rod Dedeaux whether he could, Dedeaux said OK, and Buford became the first black baseball player at USC. That was 1958, the year USC and Dedeaux won one of its many national titles. Buford even played running back and defensive back, still 150 pounds, on the Trojans football team. He needed financial aid, Dedeaux had none, and they worked out a deal in which he would play both sports and be funded by football.

"I remember starting spring football practice No. 7 running back on the depth chart," Buford says, "and by the end of the camp, I was No. 1."

For Buford, this was all a prelude to a major league baseball career that got him to the Orioles, from the White Sox, in 1968, and made him part of the famed Baltimore team that produced legends such as Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and Frank and Brooks Robinson. Buford was the left fielder and leadoff hitter with that bunch.

They were managed by Earl Weaver, a legend himself, who died last week.

"Earl gave me my shot," Buford says. "I had known him in the minor leagues. He once ordered Dean Chance to hit me with a pitch. When I got traded to Baltimore, Earl was the third base coach and Hank Bauer was the manager."

Buford came to the Orioles as a utility player. Second and third base, where he played with the White Sox, were taken. So he asked Weaver to tell Bauer he could also play the outfield. Weaver suggested Buford tell Bauer himself. Buford did, but Bauer said he was sticking with the lineup he had. Then Bauer was fired at the All-Star break, Weaver took over, and the switch-hitting Buford was on Weaver's first lineup card in the outfield, where he remained for five years.

He ended with a career .246 batting average in 1,286 games. That included an incredible statistic that marks his career: In 4,553 at-bats, he hit into only 34 double plays, a major league record.

He remained with the Orioles, eventually serving five years as the team's farm director. That was under Frank Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammate and Orioles manager.

Recently, Robinson, now an MLB vice president, came knocking on Buford's door again. The result has been a decline in Buford's golf game and a rise in his sense of commitment and achievement.

Buford is the new director of MLB's Urban Youth Academy. It is off Artesia Boulevard on the grounds of El Camino College Compton Center. Its facilities include two full-sized baseball fields, one softball field and one Little League field. No dirt infields here. The grass is well-manicured, there are batting cages and soon more lights will be added so the facility can stay open later.

"I call this our community field of dreams," Buford says.

This is part of MLB's program for reviving baseball in low-income communities. It started in 1989 and the Compton youth academy is the first of what will soon be five across the country.

The once-retired Buford now fights the traffic out of the Valley and into Compton every day, and returns home about 7.

"I've found I still have some juices left," he says.

The academy serves thousands. It is in a heavily minority area; all youngsters of both genders and any talent level are welcome. They average 60 new signups every Saturday, Buford says. They have programs that help with school. They even have a poster boy for that, Dominic Smith of Serra High School in Gardena, a MLB draft prospect this year. He came to the academy with a barely 2.0 grade-point average and now has it up to 3.1.

One Academy mission statement: "Promote greater Inclusion of minorities into the mainstream of the game."

That is being done. Martin Luther King would nod.

He'd also give Don Buford a pat on the back.

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