A version of this story originally ran in January 2023.
Alabamans. Outfielders. Negro Leagues stars. Major League heroes.
The correlations connecting Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are many. From the day in the late 1940s when their respective teams faced each other on an Alabama high school football field to the day Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds, passed Aaron on the all-time home run list, their paths crossed at many points.
But Aaron and Mays, as you well know, were never teammates. Mays even referenced this in his statement when Aaron passed away at the age of 86, one year ago Saturday.
“Although we were never teammates,” Mays said, “we played in many All-Star Games together.”
Indeed, they were All-Star teammates a staggering 22 times -- each year from 1955-72, with an additional four from 1959-62 when the leagues staged multiple All-Star Games. They also barnstormed together in the offseason.
But left unsaid by Mays in that statement, and unknown to many baseball fans, is how close these two MLB legends had come to being actual teammates in the big leagues.
Flash back to 1952. The 21-year-old Mays was in his second season in the Majors with the New York Giants. The 18-year-old Aaron was in his lone season with the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns (a misnomer, as the team by that point was actually based in Buffalo).
At that time, Aaron still had a cross-handed swing and had been signed as a shortstop for $200 per month. But he spent only one month with the Clowns, because word of his talents spread fast.
“Major League scouts are swarming into parks where the Clowns are playing,” a Chicago Defender sports columnist wrote. “All seem to agree he stands at the plate like a young Ted Williams.”
(Aaron has been credited with a .367 average and five home runs in his brief Negro Leagues career. It should be noted that those stats will not be added to Aaron’s Major League totals as part of MLB’s decision to add the Negro Leagues to its official records. Because the Negro Leagues’ quality of play began to diminish after Black players integrated MLB in 1947, the cutoff for those additions is 1948.)
The Boston Braves and the New York Giants were among the teams watching Aaron closely. We know that it was the Braves -- and specifically scout Dewey Griggs -- who signed Aaron. The Braves reportedly paid the Clowns $10,000, presumably to assume Aaron’s existing contract.
Aaron himself, however, introduces an alternate path when quoted in an essay by author Donald Honig. The essay, titled, “Batting Around,” is from the Fall 2000/Spring 2001 edition of “NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture,” and suggests that the Giants made an offer of their own.
“I had the Giants’ contract in my hand,” Aaron is quoted as saying, “but the Braves offered $50 a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates -- $50.”
Adjusted for inflation, $50 per month in 1952 is roughly the equivalent of $500 per month in 2021 -- chump change for a big league ballclub.
This lone quote has spread the story of one of baseball’s great what-ifs (the Yankees’ supposed low-ball offer to a San Diego high schooler named Ted Williams in 1936 is another).
Of course, like so much from baseball history (and history, in general), the actual accuracy of the story is unclear. If the big league teams were bidding for Aaron’s existing contract, then their bidding would have been with the Clowns, not Aaron himself.
Regardless, it’s fun and fascinating to think about how much of what followed would have been altered had the Giants sealed the deal. The mind instantly envisions Mays and Aaron in the same outfield. Perhaps these two legends would not have been limited to a lone World Series ring apiece had they played together. Perhaps San Francisco would not have waited until 2010 for its first championship.
But it works the other way, too. Given that the Giants had a pretty darn good outfield (Mays in center, Monte Irvin in left and Don Mueller in right), would Aaron have even gotten the rookie opportunity with the 1954 champion Giants that he got with the '54 Braves? Perhaps his debut would have been delayed until 1955, when a struggling Irvin was demoted to the Minors. And perhaps that delay would have impacted his ability to one day chase Babe Ruth’s home run record.
Maybe, given that ’54 logjam, Aaron would have been traded.
Maybe he would have wound up with the Braves, anyway.
In the end, having Mays and Aaron in separate zip codes served a higher purpose. They charted their own paths, established their own identities as franchise icons. They also inspired great debates among baseball fans as to who was the superior player.
Because of these debates, there was often speculation of tension between the two -- speculation both men dismissed in a 2008 interview with Bob Costas.
“We got along fine,” Aaron said at the time. “That is absolutely the furthest thing from the truth that I can think of.”
Mays’ respect for Aaron was such that he actually borrowed his bats when their teams would face each other. And the comparisons fueled competition. Aaron told Costas that if he read in the paper that Mays had three hits, he tried that much harder to get three hits of his own.
Everybody knows Aaron eclipsed Ruth’s cherished home run record with No. 715 on April 8, 1974. But he broke another record earlier in that game -- the record for runs scored in the National League (2,062).
So, no, Aaron and Mays were never, officially, teammates. But they were -- and are -- forever intertwined.