Celebrating 60: Buford’s request to play outfield turned him into a staple of O’s success

When Don Buford came to Baltimore in a trade from the Chicago White Sox before the 1968 season, he wasn’t sure where he was going to play. So he asked coach Earl Weaver to lobby manager Hank Bauer to let him play in the outfield.

“The Orioles had Davey Johnson at second and Mark Belanger at shortstop and the outfield had Paul Blair, Curt Blefary and Frank Robinson, so I didn’t know where I was going to play,” Buford says.

“I asked Earl if he’d tell Hank Bauer that I could play the outfield. Earl told me to do it myself. I did, but Hank didn’t want to change anything. So, at the All-Star break, when Earl took over for Hank as the manager, he let me play regularly in the outfield.”

And after that, the Orioles started to dominate. The Orioles won the American League pennant in three consecutive seasons from 1969-71, winning 109, 108 and 101 games.

Their 1970 World Series title against Cincinnati was sandwiched between losses to the New York Mets in 1969 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971.

Buford, the 5-foot-7 outfielder, was a staple in the success.

In five seasons in Baltimore, he hit .270 with a .357 on-base percentage and 85 stolen bases. A switch-hitter, he hit home runs from both sides of the plate in a game againt Cleveland. One time, Buford hit a grand slam against Milwaukee after the Brewers had intentionally walked Boog Powell to pitch to Buford.

Buford hit four World Series home runs. He hit .357 in three American League Championship Series against Minnesota and Oakland. He hit an ALCS home run against the Twins’ Jim Perry, an AL Cy Young winner.

Buford didn’t make an error in 15 World Series games in left field. And in his 10 big-league seasons, he grounded into 34 double plays in 4,553 at-bats, making him the toughest player to double up in big league history, according to the Society of American Baseball Research.

“That says that I was on base a lot, scoring runs and giving my teammates extra at-bats,” Buford says. “I want to be remembered for playing the game hard.”

In Game 1 of the 1969 World Series against the New York Mets before 50,429 at Memorial Stadium, Buford became the first leadoff batter to start a World Series game with a home run when he connected on Tom Seaver’s second-pitch fastball.

Buford and Seaver knew each other through the University of Southern California and had been to dinner with the Trojans’ legendary coach, Rod Dedeaux, the night before as well as after Game 1.

“Tom wasn’t very happy that night,” Buford says.

Buford’s lasting memory of the 1970 World Series was third baseman Brooks Robinson’s incredible defense against the Reds.

“He was a like a vacuum cleaner and he got to everything,” Buford says. “I was playing left field and I told him that if had missed any of those balls, I would have been in bad shape, because I was watching how spectacular he was.”

Buford hit two home runs in the 1971 World Series against Pittsburgh, but the Pirates won the title. Had the Orioles won, Buford might have had a chance at winning the MVP.

Buford’s only appearance in the All-Star Game was in 1971 in Detroit. He watched Oakland’s Reggie Jackson hit a home run over the roof and into an electric transformer in right-center field above Tiger Stadium and then Buford pinch-hit for Jackson his next time up.

Buford was struck out by Houston’s Don Wilson.

“It was a funny feeling hitting for Reggie Jackson, a future Hall of Famer,” Buford says.

In 1972, Buford’s average dropped to .206 and his Orioles days were over. The Orioles released him and he retired.

These days, Buford is managing Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy, an organization that gives free clinics to inner-city kids in Southern California.

In 1993, he went into the Orioles Hall of Fame, an honor, he said, because of all the friends and memories he made in Baltimore.

“Playing in Baltimore was the highlight of my baseball career,” Buford says.