Hi friends. Here’s how I see baseball on this Saturday morning, January 23. The baseball world lost its 10th Hall of Famer in 9 months when Henry Aaron passed away yesterday morning, at the age of 86. This has been an unprecedented series of losses for the sport and its fans.
For my money, Henry Aaron remains the home run champion. When he hit his 715th to pass Babe Ruth, and later retired with 755 home runs, steroids were the playthings of football players, weight lifters and body builders. I have no doubt whatever that Barry Bonds would never have approached 700 home runs if he hadn’t discovered “better life through chemistry.”
Aaron wasn’t flashy on the field like Willie Mays, or flamboyant off the field like the Bambino. Aaron was the kind of quiet man pitchers learned to fear. His teams only won a single World Series (1957), Aaron took two batting titles, 1956 and 1959 while the Braves still played in Milwaukee. He never challenged 60 home runs in a year, as Roger Maris did, but he was always a looming presence. His 2297 RBIs are still the MLB record unchallenged and untainted. Except for his first year, 1954, and his final year, 1976, he was an All-Star every year. During 4 years, 1959—62, he played in 2 All-Star games during the only 4 seasons MLB tried that. He led his league in home runs 4 times and in RBIs 4 times. His consistency defies modern belief. Aaron hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 to 1973. Think on that. A baby born in 1955 could have been fighting in Vietnam or studying in college in 1973. That stretch even counts the 1972 season when the teams missed games due to a strike before the season began. That didn’t stop Henry. Not even an influx of hate letters during 1973 and 1974 stopped his quest for Babe Ruth’s record.
Not all the publicity concerning the home run race was vile. Two songs were written about it. By far the one which remains better known is “Move Over, Babe, Here Comes Henry.” The song was penned by Tigers’ broadcaster Ernie Harwell and pitcher Bill Slayback, who provided the vocal. It was originally released on a 45-RPM single. Later, Rhino Records brought it back on one of its two “Baseball’s Greatest Hits” compilations. Both of these are now sadly out of print. The other folk song about the chase was written and recorded by pitcher Nelson Briles. To the best of my knowledge, it was called “Hey Hank.” The hook was, “Hey Hank, I know you’re gonna do it, but please don’t hit it off of me.” Lamentably, the one copy of that song I had was lost, and in spite of all of today’s technology, there seems to be no way of hearing it now.
Aaron was as quiet after his baseball career as he was on the field. He didn’t coach or plead to become a manager, as Babe Ruth did. Aaron might have, since Frank Robinson became the first black manager while Aaron was still a player. He didn’t cause trouble as Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez have done since hanging up their spikes. He wrote a book called “I Had a Hammer.” It was an excellent but understated book, as befitted a man of Aaron’s character. He wasn’t the man to write a tell-all book full of funny stories like David Wells, Jose Canseco, Mickey Mantle or most notoriously Jim Bouton. From 9 to 5, he worked in the Braves’ front office, later as an executive with TBS. He owned 5 car dealerships and a chain of 30 restaurants around the country. For fun, he would don a disguise and attend Cleveland Browns’ football games, taking a seat in the “dawg pound” section.
As the quiet man had lived, so he died peacefully in his sleep. The King is gone. Long live the King.
R I P Henry Aaron.1