Editor’s Note: The text of this article originally appeared on Camden Chat on January 27, 2014, when Don Buford was the #28 greatest Oriole on our then-top 40 list. It is being reposted today with light edits as we reach Buford’s place on our new top 50 countdown.
#30 - Don Buford, OF (1968-1972)
A recurring theme through some of the Orioles on our top 50 list from the Earl Weaver era is that the legendary O’s manager was able to get them into the lineup in ways that might not have been expected and they blossomed once given the chance. The best four-year stretch of his ten-year big league career came in Baltimore.
Buford was originally signed by the White Sox in 1959, arriving with the Orioles in a November 1967 trade that sent the #37 player in our top 50 countdown, Luis Aparicio, in the other direction. In Chicago, Buford was an infielder, splitting time between second and third base. He played just 12 games in the outfield in his five seasons with the White Sox, and he struggled defensively.
When Buford was traded to the Orioles ahead of the 1968 season, he was a man without a position. Brooks Robinson was at third base and Davey Johnson at second, and Buford certainly wasn’t going to displace either of them. Through the team’s first 80 games, Buford made just 22 starts and served mostly as a pinch hitter. Then he had a stroke of good fortune: His manager got fired.
The midseason change of skippers sent Hank Bauer, who’d helmed the 1966 World Series winners, packing after a 43-37 start to the season, and brought the first base coach, Earl Weaver, into the manager’s chair. Weaver saw in Buford a guy who could get on base well and thought he was being misused as a bench player. Buford had been primarily an outfielder in the minors, and so that’s where Weaver put him to get him playing time.
Buford flourished in his new role, hitting .298/.383/.457 after Weaver allowed him to play every day. As an infield sub and pinch hitter under Bauer, Buford had hit .234/.323/.378. His OPS+ for the entire season was 144. Imagine if he’d been playing the whole season? The 1968 O’s, who finished 12 games out of first place even after winning 91 games, probably needed a bit more of a boost than that, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Buford settled in as the regular left fielder under Weaver, though the emergence of another solid bench player in Merv Rettenmund (#38 on our list) allowed Weaver to have flexibility with the way he used Buford. With Rettenmund also capable of getting on base well, and with his ability to mash lefties, Buford was free at times to fill in for Johnson at second base and spell Frank Robinson in right field.
Things went downhill for both Buford and the Orioles in 1972. Frank Robinson had been traded to the Dodgers during the offseason. Buford, Rettenmund, and Paul Blair all struggled at the plate, though newcomer Don Baylor put up a good rookie season. After the 72 season the Orioles released Buford and he went to Japan for three seasons before retiring from baseball.
A lot of the players who, like Buford, were on all three of the Orioles 1969-71 teams have etched their names into Birdland lore. O’s fans under the age of 40 have no memory at all of the Orioles in the World Series and back in those days the guys made it three years in a row and won it once. Buford played a big role. In 102 career postseason plate appearances, he hit .256/.363/.488 with five home runs, two of which came against the Pirates in 1971.
From 1968-1971 with the Orioles, Buford hit .283/.397/.434 with an OPS+ of 136. He racked up 19.2 bWAR in the four-year stretch. He garnered MVP votes in ‘68, ‘70, and ‘71, and was named to his only All Star Game in 1971, a year when he had an OBP of .413. In his five seasons with the team, his walk rate ranged from 11.5%-17.3%. The highest walk rate among 2019 Orioles regulars was 9.7%.
In total as an Oriole, Buford had a .382 on-base percentage. That puts him fifth on the all-time franchise list, behind memorable Orioles like Frank Robinson and Ken Singleton and less famous ones like Randy Milligan and Gene Woodling.
After retiring, Buford worked in the minor-league systems for the Giants, Orioles, and Nationals. He was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1993. His son, Damon, debuted for the Orioles that same year.