(Updated with clarifications to my hazy memories of the Brewers game in 1975, and adding my brush with history in 1973)
Great. One of the most overused words in all of sports. Long ago I developed the opinion, my personal sensibility, that to say a player, for example, is “great” is to say they had more than an exemplary season, made more than an outstanding play, had the most amazing skills or stuff. Greatness is achieved over time. To be a great player, you had to do it over and over at a level that is extraordinary. Superlative. A supremely great athlete may also be one who transcends the sport. Ali called himself, and then lived up to his calling as The Greatest. Gretzky? The Great One. He didn’t just do it once or twice, and he didn’t just do it in comfort and without burden.
Henry Louis Aaron was a great baseball player, and as a man, he rose above to have a supreme impact on sport and America. His playing achievements are voluminous. Look them up. The AP’s Paul Newberry writes a clear and concise look at Aaron’s legacy here. The Washington Post’s obituary honors his place as a civil rights leader and icon better than my words could.
I grew up a confused midwestern boy whose family moved to Atlanta just after the Braves. I did what so many of my generation did: took The Hammer for granted. He was automatic. He finished the job. I only saw him in the second half of his 23 year playing career, when he elevated from being a spectacular multi-tool star into the greatest home run hitter in history. His swing was so quick, hands like lightning, and he always showed up. I thought only of him as a ballplayer. I had no idea what he – and other athletes of color – endured in their lives before and after the fall of the so-called color barrier. His story helped change so many of us, mature us, break us. My family lived in the South, too, and though white, we were carpetbaggers from the North, and not always accepted by neighbors. But our experiences were nothing. Nothing compared to the likes of Aaron.
And all he did was keep hitting.
In his autobiography I Had A Hammer, I recall several anecdotes about playing through injuries, including bone spurs in his back, lacerations on his hand, a fractured leg.
When he shattered Babe Ruth’s home run record, he did it with death threats, racist hatred poisoning the very stadium air where the games were played. Hank was indeed one who spoke about racism and fears before the club moved to Atlanta. Some didn’t take to him right away, but he kept swinging. And he won the fans over.
His grace, his quiet leadership, his love of baseball and his family, the way he is remembered, are all testaments to the fact he was more than Hammerin’ Hank. I met him a couple of times, but one of my regrets remains that I was so in awe of him that I failed to ask him for an interview.
Early in my career, he was in the Braves’ front office, even traveling to scout players, something he certainly didn’t need to do. I recall him in the press box in either Macon or Chattanooga, quietly enjoying popcorn and watching the game. He had a spot that gave him privacy and we were told not to bother him. I got up the courage to introduce myself, say how wonderful it was to meet him. He was gracious, shook my hand and quietly turned back to the game and his job. I think I wet my pants I was so frightened. I didn’t ask him for an interview then.
Several other times in my career I saw him around the park in Atlanta. In the late 80s he still looked pretty damn good in that Braves uniform, even in Old-Timers games. I was just starting my TV career and remember shooting video from the home team dugout as he and Rico Carty went back-to-back out of the Launching Pad. Hank must’ve been a little younger than I am now – in his mid-fifties. But his wrists? They could still wield a hammer like the king. Again, I hadn’t yet become the aggressive reporter I needed to be, and missed the chance to interview him. But I will never forget the Big Boy, Carty, saying with his accent and huge smile, “Yeah man, me and Hank, we can still heet!”
Aaron also connects me to my father. Dad was born in 1932, and Aaron broke into the big leagues with Milwaukee in 1954. He was MVP for the World Series champs in 1957, when my dad turned 25. Although he grew up going to Cubs games as a kid (Bill Swish Nicholson was his favorite), Dad followed the Braves into adulthood. And when his family moved to the Deep South, we followed Aaron and the Braves. He could rattle off the starting lineup for the ’57 and ’58 Braves, just like I could tell you who started for them in 1969 when they got slammed by the Mets in the first National League playoff series. And Aaron was in both lineups, right up until the last time we saw him play, after he was traded to Milwaukee. We saw him in old County Stadium. Brewers versus Yankees. June 30, 1975. Billy Martin had just taken over as Yankees manager for the first time. He got in a rhubarb but didn’t get tossed. Hank didn’t homer in the game – though he never hit fewer than 10 in any of his big league seasons. My memory failed me, as I thought he had a single. He was actually 0-3 before leaving the game with a sty in his eye. I think it was safe to say he earned the night off. And yep, I kept the scorebook, with a little help from my dad, I’m sure.
I also “narrowly missed” a shot at a historic home run ball at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, September 29, 1973, the penultimate game of the season against the Astros and Jerry Reuss. In the fifth, Henry hit number 713, a three-run blast, and Dusty Baker followed it with a solo shot as the Braves batted around and took a 7-0 lead.
That meant Hammerin’ Hank would get one more shot to tie the Babe in the game. I was just a kid, and dad had let me wander off as usual, hoping in my heart I could be a part of history. I ended up in the left field bleachers, along with a bunch of other folks. While the next night would be a sellout, its hard to imagine only 17,836 fans were there oaths night. As if Hank couldn’t hit two in a game. Any way, all of us, it seemed, were jammed into the aisles, pushing and shoving too get a shot at snagging the ball if he hit it. I was standing next to a guy who was smoking, and when Hank laced the ball towards left off of Larry Dierker, the lunatic (we were all crazed) threw his cigarette and it burned me as we all rushed forward. The ball fell in front of Bob Watson in left for a single, and that was that. Atlanta won 7-0. Hank had three hits the next night to finish at .301 on the season, but 714 and 715 would have to wait for 1974.
Aaron died in his sleep, the evening of January 21, 2021. Just a few weeks prior he shared something special via social media, delivering with that great smile another hit meaningful across generations. He posted that he had gotten his COVID vaccination. He told the Associated Press getting vaccinated made him feel great, and that he hoped it would send a message to Black Americans that the shots are safe. My dad got his shot the same day. That gave Don and Henry something else in common, in addition to being my hero.
Memories of Aaron are sprayed across my childhood and my adult life like a younger Aaron hitting display. And when times got tough later in his career and they stacked the shift against him as a pull hitter, Aaron just went deep. My memories are right there with him. They are of a man who overcame, fought through and delivered. 755 times he homered. Countless times he touched ’em all in some other way. Without a doubt, he is worthy of the superlative adjective.
Henry Louis Aaron was the greatest ball player I ever saw. And so much more…