Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, 7:35 a.m.
One of many ironies about Elzie Wylie Baker Jr. is that, the first time I met him, he asked me a question.
“You ain’t seen a ball, have you?”
I was about fourteen. My father, brother, and I were walking through the woods between two holes at a celebrity golf pro-am at Lan-Yair Country Club in Spartanburg. Buddy was there. So were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton. We were cutting across so that we could watch Don Maynard and Tommy Nobis hit shots. Later, at the autograph session, my dad looked at a signature, squinted his eyes, and asked, “Excuse me, but who are you?”
The fellow said, “I’m the first-shift supervisor at Woodside Mills.”
Stories like that were what made Buddy Baker and me friends twenty years later when I started writing about stock car racing for a living.
Buddy was the most self-deprecating man I ever knew. A man often left discussions with Buddy thinking, why, that man must have given away more victories than anyone who ever lived. He loved to poke fun at himself. Usually Buddy and I had our talks in a press box on race morning or in the serving area of an infield media center. A crowd always gathered to listen to Buddy hold court, but he’d see me and say, “Pull up a chair.”
That was before journalists started acting like they were on the clock and couldn’t have a bull session. Nowadays it has to be an interview. Even with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, it becomes “an availability.”
When that started happening, it really pissed me off. When I had dinner with a race driver, my goal was to get to know him and to make an impression so that he would get to know me. That would come in handy later, and it damn sure gave me better stories than “this new associate sponsor is holding an exciting sweepstakes that will give fans an opportunity to get to know me and all the friendly folks at Acme Discount Plumbing.”
Buddy made me laugh, and I made him laugh.
I told him a story about the crazy parties my dad used to throw at Christmas time, and how, at the same time, our house would have the preacher, the bootlegger, various other drinking buddies, a basketball player from Presbyterian College, a PC professor, two doctors, a lawyer, and our relatives from Texas, wandering around at the same time, drunk, sober, and in between. One year my dad tried to concoct this homemade eggnog. It had simmered all day and had dozens of ingredients, most of them alcoholic.
It was awful. Daddy started tinkering with it and dumped so much peppermint extract in it that the nog wound up tasting like Mentholatum smelled. The bootlegger could barely get it down. He took a swig – “Aaah. Goddamighty” — and said, “Pretty good, Jimmy, but I think it needs a little more sage in it.”
Sage is commonly used to season sausage, not eggnog.
For the rest of my career on the NASCAR circuit, every time I saw Buddy, he’d say, “You reckon that needs a little more sage in it?” and roar with laughter.
I never talked much to Elzie Wylie Baker Sr., who was known as Buck and died in 2002. I could see enough to figure, though, that it wouldn’t have been easy to be Buck Baker’s son. Nor Jimmy Dutton’s, so we had that going for us.
As a radio and TV broadcaster, Buddy has everything but a voice. It most closely approximates that of an unlikely actor, the late George Lindsey, who played “Goober” Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show. When I think of mismatched voices, three names come to mind: Buddy Baker, Jack Nicklaus, and Dean Smith.
If the truth be known, Buddy would have won more than nineteen major NASCAR races had he driven today, when cars are durable. He drove the hell of out of one, and most of the time, it didn’t last. Ned Jarrett won the first race I ever saw, and then I watched Richard Petty and Bobby Isaac win several times at Greenville-Pickens, but Buddy Baker won my first Southern 500, driving Cotton Owens’ burnt-orange Dodge Charger Daytona, which had a fluorescent-orange “6” on its sides and a flat-black roof, which made it look like it had a vinyl top, which was popular on the passenger cars of the time.
It was a crazy sight to see one of those long, winged Dodges roaring through the Darlington Raceway turns as if it were on a dirt track. Back in the days of bias-ply tires, such things were possible, and Buddy Baker, a strapping lad, could wrestle with the best of them.
I was in heaven. Everyone around me was either drunk or a Cub Scout. That was the back straight (now the front straight) at Darlington, and we sat there because Daddy was cheap, and on the mornings of the races, we’d walk through the infield, and one major difference was that there were no Cub Scouts there.
In the nineties, when I finally got to know Buddy on a non-golf-ball-retrieving basis, he told me about the time he’d gotten in a wreck at a dirt track in Maryville, Tennessee, or somewhere, and when the “rescue squad” (remember those?) tried to take him across the track to the hospital, the back door of the old station-wagon ambulance hadn’t been shut, and his stretcher rolled out, and he had his second wreck in turn one.
Tom Higgins used to tell the story of Buddy and him hightailing it to the beach for some deep-sea fishing, being stopped by the cops, and when a patrolman asked Buddy, “Can I see your license?” Buddy leaned out the window and replied, “Can I shoot your gun?”
Buddy told me about the time he was driving the K&K Insurance Dodge for Harry Hyde at Talladega and forgot where his pit was located. For some reason, Buddy, who always walked pit road on the morning of the race, hadn’t done it that Sunday. He was leading, and when it was time for the first pit stop, realized he didn’t have a clue where to do so. Radio communication between driver and crew was then at an early stage, and when Buddy tried to get instructions, all he could hear was everybody screaming. He knew the crew wore red uniforms, and that narrowed it down to less than two dozen.
“I found my pit lane on the fourth try,” Buddy said, “and when I come back out, I wasn’t but two laps down.”
I only saw him win at Darlington once, but I listened to another one on the radio, and was there twice when he was running away and headed to victory lane. Once the engine blew, and the other time, he crashed coming off turn two (now turn four).
He was as good at Talladega as anyone ever was, and I claim this because it’s impossible to compare the skill of Dale Earnhardt with restrictor plates to Buddy Baker without them. It’s like comparing sprint cars with wings to sprint cars without.
Incredibly, Buddy won NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 at Charlotte, three times, and his first victory was in the 1967 National 500, piloting Ray Fox’s white No. 3 Charger.
The story goes that Buddy came to the press box, Chrysler executives following him in, and when the first question, “Buddy, what are you going to do with all that money?” was asked, he scratched his head and replied, “You know, I might go buy me a Cadillac.”
When I heard Tuesday night that Buddy had inoperable lung cancer, it made me melancholy but not really sad. Apparently, he asked people not to mourn him: “For those who feel sorry, hey, I’m 74 years old, have great friends, had a career …”
It’s true. He’s lived an eventful life, enjoyed himself, and cancer will never, ever kill his sense of humor. It will live forever.
My only regret is that Buddy Baker never got to know my dad.
My new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, is available for advance order, and its release date is July 21. You can consider it here: http://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Natural-Causes-Monte-Dutton-ebook/dp/B00YI8SWUU/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1436215069&sr=1-1&keywords=Crazy+of+Natural+Causes