NEW YORK -- Former Major Leaguer Cleon Jones said Hank Aaron, who died Friday at 86, was more than just one of the greatest players in baseball history. He was one of its greatest people, too.
Jones should know. Aaron was a big brother to Jones, who had a successful 13-year career in the big leagues from 1963-75, mostly with the Mets. It didn’t hurt that both Jones and Aaron came from the hometown of Mobile, Ala. They often worked out together during offseason.
“Hank just wasn’t a super talent. He was a super human being,” said the 78-year-old Jones via telephone on Monday. “When I came to the big leagues, he was there for me. He welcomed me into the league. He took care of a little brother.”
Jones acknowledges that every time the Braves visited the Mets at Shea Stadium, all of Jones’ teammates would watch Aaron take batting practice. Aaron had a sweet right-handed swing and would hit balls all over the place.
“We didn’t do that with other teams,” Jones said. “Everybody was in awe of his talent and his ability to do everything with such grace and ease. Nobody tried to emulate him in a way where they would copy his stance or things of that nature. I was always proud when someone said, ‘He looks a little bit like Hank Aaron.’ I was proud as hell to hear someone say that, knowing full well I was falling way short [of living up to what Hank did.]”
Jones didn’t have a career for the ages like Aaron. But Jones is proud to talk about his best year in the big leagues, when he finished third in the National League with a .340 batting average.
Jones said the highlight of that 1969 season was starting for the NL in the All-Star Game. It was more than just going 2-for-4 with two runs scored; he is proud of the fact that he was one of three members on the team -- along with Aaron and Willie McCovey -- who came from Mobile.
“That was unheard of. Three guys from the same hometown in the same lineup,” Jones said. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
Four months later, Jones and the Mets found themselves facing Aaron and the Braves in the NL Championship Series. Aaron had a productive postseason, going 5-for-14 with three home runs -- one in each game -- and seven RBIs, but the Mets advanced to the World Series by sweeping the Braves in three games.
“We beat the Braves. We didn’t beat Hank Aaron,” Jones said.
As Aaron was getting closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Jones would see Aaron whenever the two teams faced each other. When the Braves were in New York, Jones would drive Aaron back to the hotel. On the drive back, Jones spoke to Aaron for three hours about what he was going through during the home run chase. It’s well known that Aaron received hate mail and death threats.
“Records are made to be broken, but you don’t care who has the record -- black, white, pink or indifferent. You play the game to the best of your ability,” Jones said. “How can you tell somebody not to break Babe Ruth’s record or anybody’s record? Most of the time, he was feeling like he was all alone because most of the time he had to stay on his own because he wasn’t staying with the team. … He had a lot records staring him in the face -- RBIs, total bases. A guy like that comes along once in a lifetime. Thank God for Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, who paved the way for younger guys like me.”