Farewell to the Hammer
Last Friday morning, January 22, 2021, some of the saddest news for any baseball fan was announced. Henry “Hank” Aaron, the Hammer, had passed away at the age of 86. For people like me and Sara Blume, he still holds the title of Home Run King.
Sara and I took a few minutes to reminisce about Hammerin’ Hank during a meeting at Forward Bank last Friday afternoon. Sara showed me a couple of signed memorabilia from Aaron and even got to see him up close and personal in a mall when she was younger. Lucky lady.
Aaron was one of the few that I never got to meet.
But it wasn’t only Sara and I talking about Aaron and his legacy. People all over the country responded immediately to the news of losing one of the greatest gentlemen in all of sports. In all of anything.
Former MLB player Cleon Jones said that Aaron was more than just one of the greatest players in baseball history. He was one of its greatest people. Both of them came from Mobile, Alabama and they used to work out in the off-season. Willie McCovey also came from Mobile. In the 1969 All-Star Game, all three men from Mobile were on the National League team.
“Hank just wasn’t a super talent. He was a super human being,” said the 78-year-old Jones on Monday. “When I came to the big leagues, he was there for me. He welcomed me into the league. He took care of a little brother.”
Jones, who played mostly with the New York Mets, said that whenever the Atlanta Braves visited Shea Stadium, all of Jones’ teammates would watch Aaron take batting practice. “We didn’t do that with other teams,” Jones said. “Everybody was in awe of his talent and his ability to do everything with such grace and ease.”
I remember hearing Aaron describe his approach to hitting. “Some guys wait for a bad pitch to hit. Not me. I liked to hit a pitcher’s very best pitch. I didn’t wait for the mistakes. I waited for the best.”
Reggie Jackson once said of Aaron, “He talks about picking up the movement of the ball, looking at the rotation, Me? I just wait for something white to come at me and I swing at it.”
The great Willie Mays said on Friday, “Although we were never teammates, we played in many All-Star Games together.” Yes. An unbelievable 22 times they were on the same All-Star team together, each year from 1955-1972, including the three years when the leagues had more than one All-Star Game.
Now imagine this. Willie and Hank were almost on the same team together. Anthony Castrovince tells it like this.
Flash back to 1952. The 21-year-old Mays was in his second season in the Majors with the New York Giants. The 18-year-old Aaron was in his lone season with the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns (a misnomer, as the team by that point was actually based in Buffalo).
At that time, Aaron still had a cross-handed swing and had been signed as a shortstop for $200 per month. But he spent only one month with the Clowns, because word of his talents spread fast.
“Major League scouts are swarming into parks where the Clowns are playing,” a Chicago Defender sports columnist wrote. “All seem to agree he stands at the plate like a young Ted Williams.”
The Boston Braves and the New York Giants were among the teams watching Aaron closely. We know that it was the Braves -- and specifically scout Dewey Griggs -- who signed Aaron. The Braves reportedly paid the Clowns $10,000, presumably to assume Aaron’s existing contract.
Aaron himself, however, introduces an alternate path when quoted in an essay by author Donald Honig. The essay, titled, “Batting Around,” is from the Fall 2000/Spring 2001 edition of “NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture,” and suggests that the Giants made an offer of their own.
“I had the Giants’ contract in my hand,” Aaron is quoted as saying, “but the Braves offered $50 a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates -- $50.”
Adjusted for inflation, $50 per month in 1952 is roughly the equivalent of $500 per month in 2021 -- chump change for a big league ballclub.
MLB Commissioner Bob Manfred had this to say. “Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players. His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history -- and find a way to shine like no other.”
When you think of Henry Aaron, there are several statistics to remember.
But for all that, it was Henry Aaron the human being that is the most captivating. When the black Henry Aaron was chasing the all-time home run record held by the white Babe Ruth, the ferocity and stupidity of racism was unleashed on this kind and gentle man. He received hundreds of thousands of letters that were vile and threatening. If white Roger Maris received such hate in 1961 when he was chasing Ruth’s single-season home run record (to the point where his hair was falling out from the stress), imagine what Aaron went through.
Aaron kept those letters to remind himself and us that, though we may have come far, we still have far to go. And yet, he saw the best in us, too.
“He was very clear-eyed about America, but also a very positive person,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). “That’s one of the wonderful things about being in his company and talking with him about the most difficult issues involving race and opportunity and inequality. There was always a sense of hopefulness and calm and focus about him, which I found incredibly comforting.”
What better thing could be said about a person than, despite being reviled and threatened, he could still be a comfort.
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