Remembering Milwaukee icon Hank Aaron

January 23rd, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Ask about the ballplayers who influenced his career, and first he talks about Puerto Rico winter ball in 1974, playing under the watch of Hall of Famer . Still an active Major Leaguer, Robinson already was honing his managing chops, and he took the 18-year-old Brewers shortstop under his wing. They spent many a night holding down barstools, talking baseball to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

A year later, came into Yount’s life.

“So for three years, I got to hang around Frank Robinson on and off the field, and then two years of Henry Aaron,” Yount said. “Tell me that’s not a great learning experience and mentoring for a young kid.

“They never taught me how to hit the ball better or throw the ball better, but they made me a better ballplayer because of the way they played.”

Aaron, the Hall of Famer who began and ended his Major League career in Milwaukee, winning a World Series with the Braves in 1957 before returning nearly two decades later to hit the last of his 755 home runs during two seasons with the fledgling Brewers while becoming MLB’s all-time leader in RBIs, died Friday morning. He was 86.

Aaron may be best remembered in Milwaukee for his years with the Braves, for whom he debuted at 20 years of age in 1954. He made the National League All-Star team a year later, beginning a remarkable 21 consecutive seasons as a big league All-Star. He was the NL Most Valuable Player Award winner in '57, when Aaron’s 11th-inning home run off the Cardinals’ Billy Muffett clinched Milwaukee’s first pennant. Among the delirious fans in the stands at County Stadium that day was former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who had skipped an accounting class at the University of Wisconsin to attend the game.

“My wife, Sue, and I are terribly saddened and heartbroken by the passing of the great Henry Aaron, a man we truly loved, and we offer our love and our condolences to his wonderful wife, Billye,” Selig said in a statement. “Besides being one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Hank was a wonderful and dear person and a wonderful and dear friend. Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C., together and talking about how we’ve been the best of friends for more than 60 years. Then Hank said, ‘Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a black kid from Mobile, Ala., would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the Commissioner of baseball?’

“Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans. He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game, and his contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”

Said Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio, who got to know Aaron during his annual visits to Milwaukee to raise scholarship funds for Aaron’s Chasing The Dream Foundation: “Hank Aaron was one of the most special people I’ve met in any walk of life. His talent on the field is all a matter of record, the home run king. But what he did off the field … he was a role model for all of us. They don’t make them like that anymore, I’ll say that.”

Bob Uecker learned of Aaron’s passing after coming in from his daily swim. They had not spoken for a while, but Uecker had received word of some health concerns. He called it “a tough day” and told stories of a friendship with Aaron that spanned parts of seven decades. A handful of those stories are actually fit for print.

“I’ve told a lot of people how I told Henry how to hit,” Uecker said. “And he told people he was sure glad he didn’t listen.”

Uecker added, “It’s what happens to all of us, but on certain days, when you lose guys like Henry, it hangs around a little longer. It’s a little tougher. Especially when they’re friends, really good friends, which he was. You know what was really good? Being a teammate of his, being able to dress next to him, and then being able to do the games [on radio] when he came back to Milwaukee in the last couple of years of his career. The laughs that we had, not only then but every time I would see him now when we got together for an event and would able to be away by ourselves, away from everybody. We could go back and remember stories of things that happened. That’s the good part of it. The bad part of it is there’s no more stories.”

The Brewers announced that they would wear a patch with Aaron’s No. 44 on their sleeves during the 2021 season. It was the first uniform number retired by the Brewers in 1976, following Aaron’s final season as a player.

Among the family mourning Aaron’s death is his son Lary, a Brewers scout since 1994. Lary was one of twin boys born in Milwaukee in December 1957, in the wake of the Braves’ World Series championship. His twin brother Gary died in the hospital, one of many tragedies the Aaron family endured over the years.

“I'm just thinking of the good memories he put in my life,” Lary Aaron said of his legendary dad. “Above all, he was a very good father to us. It was that Alabama makeup. He was tough but he was an outstanding father.”

Selig and Uecker had been friends with Aaron since the early 1960s, when Selig invested in the Braves and Aaron starred for them. After the franchise left for Atlanta, Selig founded the group that brought Major League Baseball back to Milwaukee in 1970 as the Brewers, and as the new team struggled on the field and at the gate by the middle of the decade, he was looking for answers. Aaron, meanwhile, had broken Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in '74 but was nearing the end of his career.

Selig had an idea. He began to work on a trade for Aaron, who could extend his career in the American League as a designated hitter while lending some credibility to the Brewers -- not to mention helping to sell some tickets. It came together on Nov. 2, 1974. In the only transaction of Aaron’s 25-year professional career (other than the day he signed with the Boston Braves), the Brewers gave up outfielder Dave May and Minor League pitcher Roger Alexander to bring Aaron back to where his big league career began 20 years earlier.

“There was some talk about me going to Boston and some other places,” Aaron said for the book “The Milwaukee Brewers at 50” in 2019, “but I just refused to go anywhere other than Milwaukee. I didn’t have anything else to prove.”

“It was up to Henry,” said former Braves owner Bill Bartholomay, who passed away last year. “After he broke the home run record in ‘74, which was momentous, which seemed to be untouchable, whatever Henry wanted to do, he could do. I was pleased with [the trade back to Milwaukee]. I wanted him to be happy.”

For the Brewers, it was a lot to give up. Aaron was 40 years old by then. May was 30, and while he had endured a subpar season in 1974, the year before that he hit 25 home runs while leading the AL with 295 total bases and making the All-Star team. But, as Selig said of Aaron at the time, “he gave us instant credibility.”

“It meant an awful lot to come back,” Aaron said. “As I said, I didn’t have anything left to prove to anybody but myself. I played Major League Baseball for 23 years, and I did it the best I could. I was not going to try to go to some other place and try to prove something else. I felt if I was going to continue to play, it would have to be in some place people had seen me play before.

“That was a very good choice.”

Why was Milwaukee and Wisconsin so special to Aaron?

“I didn’t play many other places besides Wisconsin,” he said. “I played [Minor League ball] in Eau Claire, Wis., then Jacksonville, Fla., and from there I went to the big leagues. I went through Milwaukee’s system. And the people always remembered that.

“You know, I don’t have one particular moment, but all the moments I spent in a Brewers uniform were very special. A lot of people say, ‘Why didn’t you want to play in New York?’ I don’t think I would have been a fit for New York. I was fit to play in Milwaukee because Milwaukee was a place that wanted me. I made mistakes and I never was booed. I never was booed in Milwaukee.”

At the 1975 home opener, more than 48,000 fans attended “Welcome Back Henry Day.” Aaron, who had gone hitless in two games in Boston to begin the season, walked in the first inning, drove in a run with a groundout in the third and singled in the sixth for his first Brewers hit.

His return was such a big deal that Aaron and Uecker did a daily radio show, sponsored by Magnavox, in addition to Uecker’s usual show with the manager. But while Aaron had gravitas, it was clear he was not the same five-tool player who had thrilled Milwaukee fans in the 1950s and 60s. He hit .234 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs in 1975, passing Ruth to become baseball’s all-time RBI king on a 4-for-4, two-RBI day against the Tigers on May 1 at County Stadium in a 17-3 Brewers win, with Aaron’s wife, Billye, in the stands. Aaron’s first RBI of the day, on a third-inning single, gave him 2,210 in his career to break Ruth’s long-held mark. Compared to breaking the home run record, the celebration was subdued.

“I don’t even know where the ball is,” Aaron said after the game, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel.

He said he was glad another chase of Ruth was over.

“There are no more plateaus whatsoever,” Aaron said that day. “I never set any plateaus or goals for myself anyway. I do the best I can, and the records just fall.”

All these years later, during a conversation in 2019, Aaron had forgotten that he’d broken the RBI record after moving to the Brewers.

“I always felt like that was my calling card,” he said. “The home run record was special, but the RBI record was even more special. It meant winning ballgames.”

Following the 1975 season, Aaron turned down an offer to manage after the Brewers fired his old friend and former Braves teammate Del Crandall. Aaron returned for ‘76 and hit 10 more home runs and drove in 35 in 85 games. Along the way, some of MLB’s iconic numbers were etched into the record books, though it was impossible to know at the time. Aaron’s 755th home run was nothing special, a seventh-inning solo shot off Angels reliever Dick Drago in the seventh inning of a 6-2 Brewers win on July 20, 1976. In time, it would become baseball history, and that number -- 755 -- would roll off the tongue of every serious fan for decades to come.

It stood as MLB’s all-time home run record until Barry Bonds hit No. 756 on Aug. 7, 2007. Four months earlier, while Bonds was still chasing the mark, the Brewers and a group of engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee got together to give Aaron’s record-setter the recognition it deserved by finding its landing spot.

Their answer: A parking lot over the left-field wall of Helfaer Field, a youth baseball and softball facility built on the footprint of what was County Stadium.

"It's a preferred parking lot which is now even more preferred," Brewers executive vice president Rick Schlesinger joked when the group revealed their results.

The baseball had hooked just inside the left-field foul pole and landed in section 28 of the lower grandstand. It was only 315 feet from home plate to the left-field foul pole, and after reviewing the grainy video of the event, Dr. Alan J. Horowitz and his students Colin Casey, Alex Cowan and Michael DeBoer -- all seniors at the time and all Wisconsin natives -- reviewed video of the home run, detailed seating charts from County Stadium and blueprints of the Miller Park worksite. They estimated that the person who first touched the ball while it was in flight was 363 feet from the plate.

That ball eventually was retrieved by a member of Milwaukee's grounds crew but was never returned to Aaron. The Brewers won the game, but they were 18 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees, and months passed before anyone realized it was the Home Run King's final shot.

By September, however, it was clear that a legendary career was coming to an end. With Aaron hobbled by a leg injury, the Brewers saluted Aaron on Sept. 17, 1975, and another crowd of more than 40,000 showed up to give him a long ovation.

“I had no doubt that I had finished my career. My career was over with,” Aaron said, thinking back on that final month. “I had done just about everything I wanted to do and could do. I couldn’t do no more.”

The Brewers lost to the Yankees in 11 innings. Aaron went 0-for-5. On the final day of the season, Oct. 3 at County Stadium against the Tigers, only 6,858 fans saw Aaron’s final hit. It was ruled an infield single to shortstop that gave Aaron his 2,297th RBI, an all-time record that still stands. As the crowd cheered, Brewers manager Alex Grammas sent a rookie infielder out to first base as a pinch-runner. The kid had just cracked the Majors and it went in the books as his 26th career game.

It was a moment Jim Gantner would never forget.