Recollections of Henry Aaron
Hall of Famer's contemporaries reflect on his legacy
Dusty Baker, former Atlanta teammate: "Hank understood things. He stressed being a man, accepting responsibility, no excuses. He was like my dad away from home. He made me go to church, eat breakfast, come in from hanging out, dedicate myself to my profession."
Ernie Banks, Hall of Famer and Cubs shortstop: "We used to have Old Timer's games, and one time, Hank got in the batting cage, and I called all the guys over. I said, 'Come over here. Watch Hank Aaron's wrists.' And he starts hitting the ball, boom, boom, boom. He had the strongest, quickest wrists of anybody. One time, I said, 'Hank, did you ever pick cotton?' That's what I did. Three hundred pounds a day, down in Texas. That's where I learned quick hands. Every athlete has a slight edge. He was a remarkable player, a remarkable hitter."
Larry Bowa: "I thought he was a great player. He did everything. Field, throw, steal bases, hit for average, for power. He was just consistent. He had that unique swing where he'd get out on that front leg. His wrists were unbelievable. He had that discipline at the plate. You'd very seldom see him swing at bad pitches. He was just very scary when he came up with runners in scoring position. He did everything, everything."
"All those guys to me, you throw them into a hat (comparing Aaron to Frank Robinson and Willie Mays): I mean, they were the elite of the elitist. Those kind of players don't come along very often. If you put those players, then, in parks like today, with the strike zones the way they are today, I would venture to say that the numbers would be unbelievable. The only advantage those players had then over those today is the specialty players of today, particularly in the eighth and ninth inning. Those guys got to face starting pitchers three or four times. When you're that good of a hitter you're going to have a pretty good idea of what they're trying to do to get you out. Today, I think it's a little tougher when you get to the eighth and ninth."
Marty Brennaman, who debuted as a Reds broadcaster to call homer No. 714 in Cincinnati in 1974: "That was my first inning of Game 1. That was the first half-inning I ever did. He did it on Opening Day in Cincinnati. [Broadcast partner Joe] Nuxhall said, 'What do you do for an encore?' Calling No. 714 three batters into your first game ever, I'll never forget it.
" ... as far as I'm concerned, Henry Aaron will always be the home run king. That's the way I feel."
Del Crandall, former teammate and manager: "I hope history doesn't miss the fact of what kind of a teammate and individual he was. He was just a great teammate. As great as a star as he was, he didn't look for any privilege. He didn't look for us to cater to him. For his greatness, I think that says a lot. When he came back to Milwaukee, I was the Brewers manager. The first day, he walked in my office and said, 'I just want to know what everybody does. I don't want any privileges.' I don't know what more testimony you need to know about him as a man. This was just one year after he became the game's home run king. I just have the highest regard for Henry."
Ralph Garr, former Atlanta teammate: "There is nobody more fit to be a better ambassador of the game of baseball than Hank Aaron. It's not fair to talk about Hank if you didn't know him as a person. He was funny, caring and committed to playing the game right. He respected the game so much and was such a positive influence on his teammates. They can talk about the greatest players of all time. Some of them might have been as good as Hank, but none of them were better."
Ernie Johnson, Aaron's teammate in Milwaukee and long-time Braves announcer: "I think he was the best all-around player in the game. He wore his success so well. He was such a humble man. Whether he went 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he was always the same guy. He never tooted his own horn. To me, he will always be the home run king."
Tommy Lasorda, who played, coached and managed against Aaron: "I played against Aaron in Puerto Rico and in the big leagues. He was one of the real complete ballplayers. He was a five-point player and one of the most humble guys you'd ever want to know. As he got bigger and stronger, that's when he really started hitting home runs. But even when he was skinny, he could play all phases of the game."
Johnny Logan, former Milwaukee Braves shortstop: "Imagine if he was playing now under this dome [at Miller Park]. No wind. No April weather. We played in rain. We played in snow. If Henry played today he would have 200 more home runs. [Joe] Adcock would have had another 150. Eddie Mathews would have had another 100. These were home run hitters. But the weather element was a big factor. We didn't care much about the big parks, we worried about the weather."
"I remember the beginning for Henry, in Spring Training 1954. They brought him down to Bradenton, Fla., just to meet the guys and get acquainted with the ball team. He was not going to make the team. And there he was, innocent, observing everything with his big eyes.
"One day we were in St. Petersburg playing the Cardinals, and the center fielder on that team was Bobby Thomson. He hits a single and tries to stretch it into a double and he slides and breaks his ankle and is carried off the field.
"Charlie Grimm [the Braves manager] looked in the dugout and said, 'Hey, Henry! Right field! [Andy] Pafko, center field.' That day, Henry hit two home runs. And Charlie said, 'Hey, Henry, you just made the ball team.' It green-lighted him. There was a lot of excitement about Henry Aaron making that '54 ball team.
"His motive in the beginning was not hitting home runs, it was winning the batting title. And he did it, twice [in 1956 and 1959]. He was more interested in that title because that's where the prestige was."
Davey Lopes, four-time All-Star second baseman in the 1970s and '80s for the Dodgers: "Early in his career, I think Hank did a lot of things exceptionally well. He ran well. He played good defense. He hit for power, obviously, and he hit for average. He was a five-tool player at one time. He never really got the publicity he deserved like some of the other great hitters, simply because of the cities that he played in. He was in Milwaukee and Atlanta all his career. If he had played in a major market, I think a lot more people would've known just how good Henry Aaron was."
Harry Minor, former Minor League catcher and long-time scout: "In 1953, I was catching for Savannah and Henry was the second baseman for Jacksonville. It was the first year the [Class A] Southern League had allowed blacks to play in the league. It was obvious right away that he was a good hitter. I mean, catching behind him, I would get ready to catch the ball and, wham, his bat would whip around and he'd hit it. He was so quick. He was just a little guy, maybe 140 pounds. But he had power even then.
"Each team was allowed to have two black players, and when I tell you they took a beating from the fans, I mean it was bad. We're talking 1953 and the black fans had to sit in the left-field bleachers and had their own bathrooms and drinking fountains. Henry was so good, the fans overlooked him and didn't give him as rough a time as some others.
"I think he played shortstop the year I played against him. In fact, when he signed [with the Boston Braves] I knew the scout, Dewey Griggs, who scouted up north. John Mullen and Roland Hemond were the scouting directors for Boston. The Braves had a working agreement with the Indianapolis Clowns at the time and could buy any player from the Indianapolis team, as long as they matched any other offer. Griggs got word from Mullen and Hemond to go over to Buffalo to watch the Clowns play a doubleheader because there was a shortstop on that club that they had first choice of signing. They went over there and watched Henry Aaron play a doubleheader and recommended they buy him.
"The Giants had offered $10,000 for Henry. Can you imagine Henry and Willie Mays being in the same lineup for all those years? Anyway, Griggs went back to Boston and told the owner that he should match the Giants' offer. The owner questioned the idea of paying $10,000 to a 140-pound player. Griggs said, 'I would do it with my own money.' They ended up sending them $5,000 right then and $5,000 later when they got it. And that's how they signed Henry. I could tell back then he would be something special. He could hit anything and everything."
Phil Niekro, Hall of Fame teammate of Aaron's in Milwaukee and Atlanta: "Henry was as pure as there was. I think the words 'pure' and 'clean' are the best words to use to describe how he played. Henry just played the game the way it was meant to be played. He wasn't looking for the spotlight. There were no smoking guns surrounding him. He made the game look simple."
Frank Robinson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Aaron in 1982: "Hank wasn't a very excitable player on and off the field, but when he had something to say, he said it. You could hear him loud and clear. He was a tremendous athlete, a tremendous all-around player. And he didn't get credit for his all-around play. He was a good defensive player. He was a good base-stealer, a good baserunner and he hit for power and hit for average. He did that year in and year out and it helped win ballgames. He was also a very fine home run hitter. He hit a lot of clutch home runs. They weren't hit to add on. He always thought about the team first. And he hit a lot of home runs after he was 35 years old. That's what amazed me at the time, because players weren't playing as long as they are today.
"Where he was playing, that's No. 1 [why Aaron didn't get more credit]. Milwaukee for most of it, and [it] wasn't a big media center then. It's not now either, really. He also wasn't one of those flashy type individuals. He made things look so easy that it kind of put you to sleep. But he made the plays. He ran the bases with one of those easy, loping gaits. He was a fine outfielder. He had a good arm and he was very active with it. And he knew the game itself. He knew the situations in ballgames and very, very rarely made a mistake.
"He places right there at the top [with the all-time greats such as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle]. I'm not saying No. 1 or whatever, but if you had any of them in a cup, shook them up and one fell out, he wouldn't be a bad guy to have on your ballclub. That's how close they all were to each other."
Vin Scully, the Dodgers' broadcaster who called homer No. 715: "That moment not only impacted this sport, but a nation. Here was a black man being celebrated in the Deep South. It was so touching to see the affection and love he generated. All things that baseball needed, Henry gave it. He was a true hero.
"After he hit it, I said, 'It's gone,' and then I didn't say anything. What more was there to say? The crowd erupted and kept cheering. I got up and went to the back of the booth and had a cup of coffee while the crowd kept cheering and I didn't come back on until the level came down a little. I'm sure there has never been -- before or since -- a longer ovation."
Allan H. "Bud" Selig, Commissioner of Baseball: "I saw him play his first game and his last game. I've known Henry for 50 years now. I have a world of respect and affection for Henry Aaron. And the thing is, he is the same fundamentally nice, decent person now that he was then. He is just a wonderful person."
Don Sutton, who pitched against Aaron: "He is the standard by which all complete ballplayers are measured. We get caught up in the 755 home runs, and we forget what a terrific athlete he was. He was a good outfielder, great baserunner. He is a guy who handled himself in a world-class fashion, where there were a lot of things that were making it hard to do that. I consider him a classy standard bearer for all power hitters."
Joe Torre, former Braves teammate: "He was awesome. He could do everything. Willie Mays got more attention because he was colorful. Henry played right field with anybody, even though Roberto Clemente would get the rave reviews because he'd throw the ball on the fly to the plate to third base, because he had a strong arm. Hank always hit the cutoff man, which wasn't as romantic, but he always did it right. He had a good arm. He'd hit a ground ball to shortstop between third and short, and he basically laughed. You couldn't throw him out."
Bob Uecker, former teammate who also broadcast Aaron's games with the Brewers: "I'm still a Hank Aaron guy. I've known Henry for an unbelievable number of years and to me, he's always been the guy and he'll always be the guy, no matter what happens.
"I remember the rotten letters Henry used to get. I saw them. It was terrible. Really bad. He did it at a really tough time, with threats on his life and everything else. But Hank's demeanor was pretty much what it was today. When it was time to hit, there was nothing else for The Hammer. He's like that today, too. He's low key, likes to laugh. We still are great friends.
"I'll tell you why Henry was underrated back then -- Roberto Clemente. They both were right fielders, and Clemente was the more flashy guy. Clemente would go into the right-field corner and throw a ball all the way to third base. Henry didn't do that stuff. He got to balls and he just caught them.
"People who saw Henry early in his career remember him as a right-field hitter. I think Eddie Mathews had a lot of do with changing his hitting style, because hitting home runs became a big deal and Henry could hit them as well as anybody. Hank became more a pull-hitter than he was early in his career. He got bigger and stronger -- early, he was a little wisp who was lean and narrow and could run like hell. You would look at him and say, 'Where does he get that power?'"
Billy Williams, Hall of Famer and Cubs outfielder: "He was such a great player, I think he's lacking the recognition and all that. If he played in an era with all the television and publicity that surrounds players now, I think he'd be at the top of the list. He played in the golden era and did everything there was to do in this game, but he did it with such ease, he wasn't flashy. He just got it done."
MLB.com reporters Lyle Spencer, Mark Bowman, Mark Sheldon, Adam McCalvy, Ken Gurnick, Barry Bloom, Carrie Muskat, Jim Street and Bill Ladson contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.