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On the Same 'Side

Decades ago, the families of Baker and Bonds became linked in Riverside

October 18, 2002|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, a man rose three hours before sunrise and drove alone in his work truck along a two-lane road lined densely by orange trees.

En route to another job site in Orange County, home plasterer Robert Bonds Sr. devoted time during the journey from his Riverside home to the thoughts that inspire most good family men. He wanted his children to have a strong work ethic, be well educated, avoid discrimination and establish a successful life that could only be improved upon by their children.

"My father used to say, 'If God wanted you to go backward, he'd have turned your feet around,' " said Rosie Bonds, one of Robert Sr.'s four children.

On Saturday, Elizabeth Bonds, the feisty, 88-year-old widow of Robert Sr., will retrace her husband's old early-morning work route when she is driven on the 91 freeway toward Anaheim, where she will watch her famous grandson, Barry, play in his first World Series game. Upon his introduction at Edison Field, Barry Bonds, wearing a cross earring that stands as a symbol of his love for his deceased grandfather, will greet another man whose Riverside roots are unmistakable: San Francisco Giant Manager Dusty Baker.

"This is indescribable to me," said Dusty's father, Johnnie Baker Sr., who now lives in the Northern California town of Carmichael. "I've been throughout the world, and I'm convinced the only place my son could have accomplished something like this -- this journey from the pits of despair to the very top -- is America."

To hear the Bondses and Bakers tell it, Riverside, circa 1950-65, was one of the few American cities that could so wildly encourage families to chase such brilliant futures.

"I wish everyone could know what Riverside was like back in the day," Rosie Bonds said.

Robert Bonds Sr. arrived in Riverside from Texas in 1934. His educational background was minimal, Rosie Bonds said, placing it at a sixth-grade level. But his enthusiasm for work, family, religion and community was infectious.

"He coached us all about the importance of commitment," Rosie said. "One of the things he was most committed about was getting his contractor's license. We waited outside by the mailbox for days before it finally came. I was only about 6, but I still remember what he said when he finally got it: 'We're going to go places now.' "

Johnnie Baker Sr. settled in Riverside in 1945 after Naval duty in the Pacific as a gunner's mate. Working as a governmental sheet metal technician at Norton Air Force Base, he and wife Christina had their first child on June 15, 1949. Three years later, Johnnie Jr. earned a new first name: "Dusty."

"He wouldn't play in anything but dirt, and we had a big backyard with fruit trees, a garden with vegetables, flowers and shrubs," Baker Sr. said. "He'd take off for that dirt like he was running a race. There were a lot of baths, a lot of changes of clothes. So I called him Dusty, and his mother started calling him it too."

The Bakers' neighborhood was diverse -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- as was Dusty's elementary school, Lowell.

"Dusty was never intimidated by anyone racially as an adult because he never had a reason to feel inferior in talking to and playing with kids of all races," said Stan Davis, a longtime friend of Baker's who lives in Riverside.

"In those days, your neighborhood was your family," said Robert Baker, the Bakers' second child. "We were raised in modest means, on the poor side of town, but because of that we learned to do more with less, to appreciate what we had, to understand the importance of loyalty to your community. That has been real important in Dusty's success in dealing with the diversity in the pros."

So were his dad's obvious, subtle and hidden lessons. Robert Baker remembered, "Dad never let us be half good at anything," and that included the occasional assignments he gave them while running a custodial service.

Baker Sr. coached Dusty during most of his youth baseball days. "Dusty was mischievous and active, you had to be stern with him," said Baker Sr., who once benched his 11-year-old son for a Little League all-star game for being rebellious. "My philosophy was once you decided to do something, you have to completely finish the job. He said he wanted to play baseball, so I hit him hundreds of balls. By the time he was 12, he was a very good player."

By the time Dusty was 12, the emerging civil rights movement had touched Riverside. Baker Sr. confronted Dusty's Central Junior High principal for a policy that allowed black children to be dismissed early from school so they could serve as caddies at Victoria golf course, which was behind the Bakers' backyard wall.

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