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Don Baylor put the Angels on the major league map

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 1982, file photo, California Angels’ Don Baylor swings away during the sixth
Don Baylor led the Angels to their first playoff appearance in 1979.
(Associated Press)

The Angels never really became a major league team until Don Baylor showed up.

They were born in Los Angeles, shared Dodger Stadium for four years, then moved to Anaheim and renamed themselves the California Angels in trying to escape the Dodgers’ shadow.

The scoreboard is what it is, even if you move 30 miles down the 5 Freeway. In their first decade in Anaheim Stadium, they regularly struggled to draw a million fans, even after Nolan Ryan arrived and each one of his starts brought the tantalizing possibility of a no-hitter.

The Dodgers landed in Southern California in 1958. From then until the time Baylor signed with the Angels after the 1976 season, the Dodgers had played in the World Series five times. In Baylor’s first two years with the Angels, the Dodgers got to the World Series both times.

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“We felt the burden of not being the Dodgers,” Baylor wrote in his book “Nothing But The Truth: A Baseball Life.”

“Why the Angels wanted to be Dodger clones was beyond me, but the emulation never ended. With all that Dodger Blue bleeding around me, I instantly began to hate the mere mention of that team.”

Gene Autry, the Angels’ founding owner and a Hall of Fame showman in his own right, had gotten tired of hearing about the Dodgers too. In the infancy of free agency, Autry struck.

In 1976, Baylor had made $34,000 for the Oakland Athletics. Autry gave him a $580,000 check just to sign with the Angels, the bonus in a six-year, $1.6-million contract. Autry also signed Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi that winter, traded for Rod Carew in 1979 and Fred Lynn in 1981, and signed Reggie Jackson in 1982.

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By then, the Angels had won. In 1978, Baylor’s second season in Anaheim, the Angels set a franchise record by winning 87 games. In 1979, the “Yes We Can” Angels won 88 — and the American League West too, for the first playoff appearance in club history.

The Angels drew 2.5 million to Anaheim Stadium. Baylor was voted the AL most valuable player.

He drove in 139 runs, a club record that still stands. Mike Trout’s best is 111.

The Angels won the AL West again in 1982, this time with 93 victories — a mark no Angels team would top until 2002, when the World Series champions won 99.

Ask a longtime Angels fan about Buzzie Bavasi, then the general manager, and the eye roll comes first, then the recollection of Bavasi’s infamous quote that he could afford to let Ryan go in free agency because they could replace him with “two 8-7 pitchers.”

Bavasi later acknowledged that was his greatest mistake. Second to that might have been his 1981 comment, looking at a photograph of Baylor standing next to Carew and Fred Lynn: “What’s Don doing in that picture with the two hitters?”

The relationship between Baylor and Bavasi deteriorated. When his contract expired after the 1982 season, the Angels let him go, and Baylor signed with the New York Yankees.

“It was bitter,” Baylor told The Times in 1990. “Not bitter, but I had so many ties here. I felt I was part of the building process of the Angels. It was very, very difficult for me to leave and go to New York.

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“You can look around and say I had a chance to go play with a World Series team and be a Yankee . . . but Mr. Autry was by far the finest owner I played for. I wanted to be here.”

Baylor ended his career by coming back.

He played three years with the Yankees. He spent the final three years of his playing career as a rent-a-leader, becoming the first player in major league history to get to the World Series with three different teams in three consecutive years (1986 Boston Red Sox, 1987 Minnesota Twins and 1988 Oakland Athletics, although his attempt to rattle Jay Howell and the Dodgers before the 1988 World Series did not go well).

Baylor was the inaugural manager for the Colorado Rockies. They made their debut in 1993. He led them to the playoffs in 1995 and was honored as National League manager of the year.

He managed the Chicago Cubs too, and he was a well-regarded hitting coach. His last stop: back home with the Angels.

In 2014, they celebrated what were then the only MVPs in club history by asking Vladimir Guerrero to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and Baylor to catch it. Guerrero’s throw was low and away, and Baylor’s right ankle gave way.

He caught the ball, but he could not get up. The athletic trainers rushed to help, and eventually he walked off the field — trying first on his own, then with the assistance of the trainers. No one knew how severe the injury was; the Angels sent him to the hospital to find out.

His legs had been weakened over a decade of battle with the cancer that eventually took his life Monday. But, with the dignity and strength befitting a player who had been hit by more pitches than all but one in the modern era, Baylor will be remembered for walking off the field with a broken leg.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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