“I was in the same mold as Joe DiMaggio. Nothing flashy. What you saw on Monday was the same thing you got on Friday.”
– Henry Aaron, RIP 1/21/21
In 1957, the year the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, I liked taking the streetcar out to County Stadium and hang out in the left field bleachers waiting for a home run ball. And I always took my glove.
That’s where the right-handed sluggers, particularly Big Joe Adcock and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, would hit them over the fence. And that’s where I caught one.
It was a Sunday morning just before a double-header, during the pregame batting practice. A bunch of us were hanging around the left field fence waiting for a long one, when someone yelled, “Heads up!”
We all pushed against the fence with our gloves up in the air. When the ball landed we all looked at each other trying to see who caught it. I looked in my glove and there it was, right in the webbing.
I had caught it! It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I only wish I knew who hit it. Whenever I told people I caught a home run ball, they would ask, “Who hit it?”
Someone there had said Andy Pafko, but when I told people it was Pafko, they would say, “Gee, that’s too bad, are you sure it wasn’t Hank Aaron or Eddie Mathews or …?”
When I showed my mom the ball that evening, she asked why I didn’t take it to the dugout for the players to autograph? No matter, she was a waitress at the Elk’s Club where the players were having a dinner the next Friday night. She took the ball to the dinner, told how her 13-year-old son caught the ball, and they all signed it.
The signatures are faded now, partly because the ball is 63 years old, and mostly because one day a friend came over to play catch. He brought his glove but neither of us had a ball. So we played with my signed ball. Really stupid, I know, but you can still make out most names: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Billy Burton, Johnny Logan, Joey Jay, Joe Adcock, and the largest of all, Satchel Paige.
1957 was the third year the Braves were in Milwaukee and the only World Series they ever won, thanks to Aaron’s 11th inning homer, which also helped him win the MVP award.
I lost interest in the Braves after they moved to Atlanta in 1966, though I followed Aaron in the news, as his consistent 30 plus homers and over .305 batting average was adding up. He never hit 60 or 61 homers in one season as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris did, but he got a hit almost every third time at bat.
I started dating my first wife in the Winter of ’65-’66. She was an only child from a well-to-do, conservative suburb north of Milwaukee called Mequon. She told me Aaron lived near her parents’ home, so one day we drove past.
It was a one-story brick house, like many in the area, nothing fancy. Aaron had all the qualities of a good neighbor. Quiet, responsible, hard working. In short, to paraphrase Aaron’s opening quote: “What they saw on Monday was the same thing they got on Friday.”
But some didn’t like it, some felt that blacks, no matter who they were, didn’t belong in white neighborhoods. Aaron received hate mail, even death threats, and occasionally people would drive by and throw stuff on his front lawn.
To me, Milwaukee’s racism was a surprise and an embarrassment. I mean, didn’t all the racists live in the South? We Northerners didn’t have WHITE ONLYpublic bathrooms, like I saw in Atlanta, which just happened to be where Aaron finished out his career, and broke Ruth’s home run record.
It was in August of 1974 he hit his 715th homer, breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed career record, which caused a controversy, as die hard Ruth fans said Aaron had more times at bat than Ruth and felt he should have done it in the same number of games, but the League had lengthened its schedule, giving Aaron more games, more times at bat.
“It should have been the most enjoyable two or three years I had in baseball, but circumstances prevented that,” Aaron said of his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s long-standing record.
We’d seen more than a few leaders gunned down during the 60s and 70s, so Aaron’s threats were taken very seriously. He said he was “A victim, a prisoner of my own doing. I had a security guard with me and an escape route from each ballpark.”
Aaron retired after 23 seasons with the Milwaukee Braves (’55 to ’65) and Atlanta Braves (’66 to ’78), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, and died on 1/22/21.
Postscript: This article was written in 1990 for one of my columns in the Willits News and edited on 1/23/21.