Hunker Down: He ‘hammered’ life into us
On Tuesday, April 13, 1954, a young Jim Greengrass, batting fifth and playing left field for the Cincinnati Reds, hit four doubles that led his team to victory.
Twenty-year-old Hank Aaron made his major league debut in that game, also batting fifth and playing left field, for the Milwaukee Braves. He failed to get a hit in five trips to the plate.
The very first thing Mr. Aaron taught us about life is it’s not how you start – it’s how you finish!
The first time I saw him play was at old Sportsman Park in St. Louis in August of 1959. Hank was in center field that night. And he was already a certified superstar, having won the NL batting title, an MVP award and the World Series just a couple of years before.
Here’s what I remember about that game. The Cardinals had put it out of reach by scoring a parcel of runs early. Hank was on first in the eighth or ninth inning. Most guys by then would be just playing out the string – let’s get the game over. Joe Adcock bounced a single up the middle. Hank took off like a flash, flew around second and slid into third just ahead of the throw.
Most players would have jogged down to second and let it be. I was 12 years old but I got the message…
The second thing Hank Aaron taught us about life, we’re not going through the motions here!
Hank played with us in those days. We’d choose up sides. And we didn’t take the field as Kesley Colbert, John Ingram or Jackie Burns. Heck no! We were Stan the Man Musial, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and Hammering Hank Aaron! And when you consider it was the Deep South in the late ’50s, it was even more of a tribute to Mr. Aaron than we realized.
The last time I saw him play was in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. This was late in his career, around 1972 or ’73. He was back in left field. In the second inning someone hit a long fly down the left field line that fell into foul territory about five rows into the bleachers.
Hank couldn’t have caught it but he only took a step to his right and stopped. I went to coaching from the grandstands. “He’s got to get over there! You’ve got to hustle over in case there is a play!” I gave everyone around an earful of my outstanding baseball knowledge.
A few innings later, another ball was hit, I’m telling you, about the exact same place down the left field line as the first one. This time Hank took off with everything left in his aging body, he flew across the foul line, put his right hand on the wall and leaned two rows into the stands and made a fabulous backhanded catch.
He knew the four-foot difference in the two fly balls immediately off the bat!
One of Hank Aaron’s most enduring life lessons (I think this one was just for me); if you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about when you blatantly start to criticize – keep your stupid mouth shut!
I didn’t actually see the next lesson. So I may not get it exactly right. But I’ve heard it so often from folks who would know, you’ll get the essence…
Bob Gibson, the legendary pitcher for the Cardinals, was on the mound against the Braves late in his Hall of Fame career. His blazing fastball by then had slowed to mere mortal status. A young Braves hitter cracked one a mile over the fence. He strutted back into the dugout saying something to the effect that, “Gibson wasn’t nearly as tough or as good as advertised.”
Aaron quietly got up from his end of the dugout and moved down to face the young player. Leaning in close so every word would have the intending impact, Hank explained baseball to the up-and-comer, “Son, if we could roll back 10 years, Gibson would have knocked that bat right out of your hands!”
Without fanfare, Hank Aaron set the record straight, stood up for a fellow competitor, dispensed hopefully a dash of humility and gave us a quick snapshot into his wonderful character. Whew! That’s almost more life lessons than you can count on both hands!
I don’t remember the exact occasion. Maybe it was when he retired; or his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It could have been at any number of lifetime achievement awards Mr. Aaron received over the years. Someone asked his daughter about the moment and her dad, what it meant to her…
Her heartfelt answer I pray is still reverberating around the world, “He was a better father than he was a baseball player.”
Add one more lesson to the list.
This article originally appeared on The Star: Hunker Down: He ‘hammered’ life into us