Hammerin' Hank was my hero
Baseball has always been my favorite sport and former Major Leaguer Hank (Hammerin' Hank) was one of two American heroes I idolized. The other star is Willie (Sey Hey) Mays of the Giants.
Aaron, who played all but two years of his career with the Milwaukee Braves and Atlanta Braves, died last Friday of natural causes. He was 86.
As a rabid fan for most of my years, I have been fortunate enough to have seen both Aaron and Mays in action.
I was saddened when I learned of Aaron's death last week. He fought strong racisim as he marched toward breaking Babe Ruth's home run total of 714. Aaron walloped No. 715 on April 8, 1974.
I was lucky to have met Aaron one month later in May of 1974 when he accompanied the Braves baseball team to Minneapolis to play an exhibition game at Metropolitan Stadium against the Minnesota Twins.
Prior to the exhibition game, Aaron (44) and Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew (3) were pitted against one another in a home run hitting contest. I was on the field as a credentialed reporter/photographer for the Forest Lake Times.
I smuggled in an action photo of Aaron I clipped from an issue of SPORT magazine. I edged closer to the Braves' dugout and making eye contact with Aaron, I asked him to sign the photo. He graciously agreed.
Asking for an autograph while a member of the press was, then and now, frowned upon, I got by with it and still have the autograph to this day.
Killebrew and Aaron tied in the home run contest at Met Stadium. I was fortunate again to be one of just a few media to capture some moments of Aaron and Killebrew together.
Able to get close for some iconic photos, I snapped photo after photo of these two sluggers taking their swings and also posing together for a historic photo.
Years later, my son Troy, an avid autograph collector, had some of my photos from the home run hitting contest enlarged and signed by the two Hall of Famers.
I also saw Aaron two more times, once when he joined the Milwaukee Brewers for the last two years of his Major league career, and again when he was retired and personally attended a memorial service for his friend Harmon at Target Field.
Aaron and Killebrew were two of a kind, both playing the role of a true teammate. They were more interested in bringing their fellow players across home plate than they were about putting the ball over the fence.
Aaron played 23 seasons in the Major Leagues. He was one of the last major league stars to play in the Negro Leagues.
More than 44 years after his last game, he still ranks first on baseball’s all-time list in RBIs (2,297), second in home runs (755), third in hits (3,771) and fourth in runs (2,174).
His career batting average was .305. The Hank Aaron Award has been given to the top hitter in each league, as voted on by fans and the media, annually since 1999.
Aaron was a two-time National League batting champion and was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1957, the year Aaron's team, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series. Aaron hit .393 during the seven games of the World Series that year.
Aaron fell one home run shy of breaking Babe Ruth's home run record in during the 1973 season. He quickly tied Ruth at 714 on the first day of the 1974 season. He broke Babe's record on April 8, 1974 in Atlanta before more than 55,000 fans.
Aaron's historic homer was hit off left-hander Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On his way to breaking the Babe's home run record, Aaron faced lots of racial taunts threatening him.
Years after he left the game of baseball, Aaron said he now saw a clear picture of what the country was all about. He remembered the times he was forced to stay in a different hotel while traveling with the Braves. He also said his children had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats.
Aaron always impressed me as a class athlete. He had that wide smile and was always willing to reflect on his baseball career.
Hammerin' Hank served as a Braves' vice president in charge of player development after he retired. He then became a senior Braves vice president and worked on behalf of he Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, helping gifted kids develop their talents.
Hank Aaron will be regarded by me as one of the best baseball players ever and also as one of the best human beings off the field.