Last updated 1/26/2021 at 4:28pm
It has certainly been a tough year for sports, and by that I mean the many great figures that have passed away; many of these people were hall of fame athletes. I believe that baseball has taken the biggest hit. I was watching an ESPN interview and there were about nine deaths in the last 12 months, including Manager Tommy Lasorda. If you took all of these great ball players and put them on a roster, you would have a great team.
The two latest deaths were former Dodger pitcher Don Sutton and Brave hitter Henry Aaron. Since Sutton was a Dodger as well as a pitcher for several other teams, he was someone I liked because of the uniform he wore. He was a good pitcher and worthy of the baseball Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, I was not a fan of Henry Aaron. Aaron got his start in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. As with many black baseball players in the early years when former Negro League baseball players broke through, the color barrier racism did rear its ugly head.
Why I wasn’t a fan of Aaron is really quite simple. It wasn’t the color of his skin, but it was the color of his uniform. I had no animosity for the man personally, but he hit numerous home runs off the guy I thought was the best pitcher on the planet and maybe to this day, Sandy Koufax.
The Milwaukee Braves organization had moved to the Wisconsin city from Boston in 1953. They would stay in the Midwest until 1966, when they would become the Atlanta Braves.
Over the years baseball changed, and with a few more teams added to the league it was decided that it would be best if the leagues were split into divisions. In the National League West were Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Cincinnati and Atlanta. Has anyone looked at a map of the USA? Atlanta is west of South Carolina. It would take a number of years for Major League baseball to realize that Atlanta was really located on the east coast, and traveling is still a big part of the game.
Getting back to Aaron, it really is amazing how quietly it seemed that he climbed up the ladder as a home run hitter. He wasn’t the kind of guy that was making news as a team troublemaker, he was just a team player.
I remember vividly the night of April 8, 1974. I was 21 and my college roommate and I were going to watch the Dodgers and Braves play on Monday night baseball. Since we were both Dodger fans, we were excited for the new season to take off. We were also well aware that Henry Aaron was sitting on 714 career home runs tied with Babe Ruth. There had been rumors of death threats similar to the death threats that Roger Maris endured when he was having a sensational season hitting home runs for the New York Yankees. The difference was people wanted Maris’ teammate Mickey Mantle to break the record because they didn’t consider Maris a true Yankee.
For Aaron, the reason most assuredly was that he was a black baseball player and there are a lot of nut jobs out there who will find every reason why things shouldn’t happen. I didn’t want him to break the record against the Dodgers, which is ridiculous, but hey I was a fan.
What I didn’t take into account is that I was witnessing baseball history and that I should appreciate it, which I eventually did. I saw Maris hit number 61 in 1961 on a Sunday afternoon and I saw Hammerin’ Hank Aaron deposit an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence for home run number 715.
Over the years I’ve appreciated Aaron and his accomplishments, and he most likely would have been my favorite player of all time had he worn Dodger blue. But he was the opposition.
I’ve seen a few interviews with Aaron and he was the real deal. He talked about the death threats and the home run on that Monday night in 1974. Two young men came out of the stands and caught up with Aaron about the shortstop area and ran with him for a ways. This startled Aaron because he wasn’t sure if they were going to attack him on the spot. They didn’t, but hopefully security was increased after this episode.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the consistency and greatness of Henry Aaron. We are saddened by his death, but at 86 we know he led a great life. There are players with multi-million dollar contracts today that will never be in the same league as Henry Aaron, either as a player or a human being.