By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Aaron’s Legacy Reaches Beyond Outfield Fences
“Now everyone wants to talk to me,” Drago said with a laugh.
Because on July 20, 1976, at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, Drago, pitching for the Angels against the Brewers, gave up the 755th and final home run of Hank Aaron’s career.
“It wasn’t any big deal at the time. I didn’t know it would be his last,” Drago said. “It was the middle of a season, two last-place teams. I’d pitched to Hank before, too.”
Drago doesn’t mind being a trivia answer. “I was good enough to be there,” he said. He won 17 games in 1971 and threw three scoreless innings for the Red Sox in historic Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Drago even has his own trivia: Who was the Angels’ right fielder that day in 1976? “Bobby Bonds,” Drago said. “Barry’s dad.”
Life is funny. So what’s another home run?
“There are worse things than being associated with Henry Aaron.”
To men who saw Aaron play, or played with him, loved him and learned from him, Barry Bonds’ pursuit of 755 is no sad thing, even with the cloud that comes with it. Henry Louis Aaron is back in the news.
“I don’t think Hank is diminished,” Dusty Baker said. “This makes him larger.”
Baker played with Aaron in Atlanta. He was in the on-deck circle for the Braves on April 8, 1974, when his hero hit his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth, a victory for consistency and greatness, over hate and death threats – fitting tribute to a man of unceasing dignity.
Back then, Baker called him Hammer or Ham. Or he was Supe, short for superstar; funny, because Hank Aaron never acted like one. But Hammer he was.
“Best nickname ever,” Baker said.
“He could hit an inside pitch better than anyone I ever saw,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who gave up nine homers to Aaron, nowhere close to Don Drysdale’s record 17. Hammer took you downtown whether you were headed to Cooperstown or not.
“Hank Aaron was a very quiet baseball player,” said Felipe Alou, who played with Aaron. “He didn’t brag about anything. He went out every day, got the job done and did what the manager wanted him to do. He was a tremendous base runner. He was a great defensive right fielder with a real good arm. I mean, this guy was the perfect player.”
“Henry was sort of in [Willie] Mays’ shadow,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who played with Aaron. “Willie was in New York, San Francisco. He was more spectacular, but Henry was great. Henry was Henry. He’d hit the cutoff man every time. Willie didn’t know what a cutoff man was. When Willie stole second, his hat would fly off. When Henry stole second, his hat stayed on.”
Aaron had a great wing span, and always took young players under it – like Baker, fresh from Los Angeles, new to the Deep South, or Ralph Garr. They’d show up in Aaron’s hotel room on the road to listen and learn. Garr was on second base when Aaron tied Ruth by hitting No. 714 in Cincinnati on Opening Day 1974.
“He didn’t really talk to you unless he had something to say, but it always meant something,” Garr said.
“Hank always said don’t show anybody up,” Baker said. “He didn’t let us clown or showboat. If you hit a home run and wanted to jump around, Hank told you to go up the dugout runway and do it, then come back and act like you’ve done it before. I never heard him mention any of his records, not once.”
Hank Aaron was 13 when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. He hit his first home run in 1954, 10 years before Barry Bonds was born.
Gary Sheffield met Aaron while playing for the Braves. But they go back further than that, to a kid swinging a bat in a Tampa backyard.
“My granddad used to put this tire up on a tree for me to swing down on,” Sheffield said.”I’m hitting this tire and I’m about to fall down.”
He can’t tell you how many times he hit No. 715 on that tire.
“As soon as I’d get outside, I was Hank Aaron. There was nobody else.”
Dusty Baker could have played college basketball or football, but chose baseball after the Braves drafted him – and his mother extracted a promise from Henry Aaron.
“Hank promised my mom he’d take care of me,” Baker said. “He was like a dad. He made me eat breakfast, made me go to church, made me read.”
“I made a defensive mistake against the Astros when we were fighting for the pennant,” Felipe Alou said. “I caught a fly ball and thought it was the third out. I started walking with the ball. Hank ran over and took it away from me. He tried to throw, but a guy scored all the way from second. I was feeling terrible. The guy tied the game. But Hank said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to do something about that.’ He came up the next inning and hit the first pitch out. We ended up winning the game.”
Dusty Baker loved Hank’s laugh. He remembers the other side, too.
“There was a pitcher who shut us out 1-0 and later he showed up in our clubhouse,” Baker said. “Hank didn’t like that he was throwing spitballs to shut us out. Hank yelled, ‘Get him the hell out of there.’”
Remember The Hammer
Is it coincidence that Baker, Alou and another former Aaron teammate and protege, Cito Gaston, became great managers who happened to be minority hires, something Aaron fought for as Jackie had before him? Baker says the important things he learned about baseball he learned from Hank. He learned about Jackie, too, and another friend of Hank’s: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On that historic April night in 1974, Baker didn’t rush from the on-deck circle as his teammates stampeded the new home-run king. He thought: This is Hank’s moment.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Baker said. “The way Hank carried himself, through the threats, was just another lesson. People always ask about my proudest moment in baseball. My proudest moment was being around Hank.”
Hank Aaron won’t be around when Barry Bonds hits No. 756. Baker, now an ESPN baseball analyst, who managed Bonds in San Francisco, has talked to Hammer.
“Hank said he didn’t want to travel the country, him being . And they’d ask him about asterisks or is it tainted. He just wants to let Barry alone.
“I believe Hank. He ain’t no liar.”
Dick Drago traveled to Milwaukee six years ago for the 25th anniversary of Aaron’s final home run. He was greeted warmly by the Hammer.
“Hank Aaron is a good and decent man,” Dick Drago said.
That record will never fall.