The 1957 and 1958 World Series hooked me on Aaron, who died on Friday at 86, and Spahn. Their Milwaukee Braves battled the New York Yankees, whom I already had learned to hold in equal parts awe and hate, on dead-even terms, winning in seven games in their first Series meeting before New York got revenge in seven games in ’58. Aaron hit .364 and slugged .600 in those two World Series.
From 1956, the year I became a baseball fan, until 1969, when I started working in The Washington Post’s sports department, I felt like I was sole proprietor — or at least one of a small group of part-owners — of a huge but obscure secret: The greatest all-around player in baseball after World War II might not be Willie Mays, though I loved watching him, or Mickey Mantle, whose next swing might produce a 500-foot home run, or even Ted Williams, the best hitter but a great artist uninterested in fielding or running.
It might be Hank Aaron.
In the obscurity of Milwaukee, then Atlanta when the Braves moved there, Aaron was a seldom-seen, almost mythical creature who existed in box scores, occasional Saturday “Game of the Week” telecasts and All-Star Games. Unless, like me, you had somehow gotten hooked on him early and followed those box scores and annual statistics like a cultist, you thought Aaron was a better Al Kaline or Roberto Clemente with more power but less arm.
There was no conspiracy of silence about Aaron, no plot to keep him underappreciated — which he still is to this day. He was, simply, the greatest attention-deflecting machine the game ever produced. He played with understated grace, swift efficiency and a lizard-tongue wrist-snap of a swing. He tried to hit the ball 400 feet, not 450. That restraint, in an era that adored tape-measure homers, allowed him to blend contact with power; Aaron hit over .320 eight times yet routinely had years with around 40 homers but only 60 strikeouts.
With reporters, he was accessible but modest and uncontroversial. The exuberance of the “Say Hey Kid,” the sex appeal of Mantle and the mystique of Teddy Ballgame magnetized fans. Aaron just played. In the last 18 years of his career, he never played in a World Series and in only three barely noted playoff games in 1969.
Then, to every fan’s great good luck, a strange and marvelous thing happened when Aaron reached age 35 — a cliff off which almost every great hitter in history had plummeted. For five years, from ages 35 through 39, he no longer played in 99 percent of all Braves games as he had since 1954, gliding down from about 150 games a year to just 120 in 1973. Yet he still averaged more than 40 home runs a season. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage and OPS+ rose to .997 and 168 in those five years — both higher than his career figures. When us Aaron lovers saw him hit 47 homers in just 495 at-bats at age 37 in 1971, we realized that he was, per at-bat, better than ever.
I got to the MLB beat just as Aaron was leaving, not long after the universe discovered him and then counted down to his 715th home run. I never talked to him during his playing days. But I kept an eye out. Once, at an old timer’s event that included a home run hitting contest, I realized that Aaron was going to “face” his longtime teammate Spahn for perhaps the first time in their lives, though Spahn’s job was to toss meatball batting practice to the hitters.
Spahn, 13 years older than Aaron, may have been a senior citizen by that day, while Hank was pushing 50. After a swing-and-miss, Aaron started taking pitches. After one more weak swing, Aaron dropped his bat and, with plenty of swings left in his turn, returned to the dugout.
“Why’d you stop? Did you pull a muscle or something?” I asked Aaron afterward.
“No,” Aaron said, “but that damn Spahnie started throwing me screwballs.”
I have heard — but can’t attest — that Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth took their post-career meetings seriously, too.
I confess to interviewing Hall of Famers whenever I can, from Cooperstown inductions, where they congregate, to lazy spring training days when you suddenly see a long-retired legend leaning on a batting cage. I have talked with about two-thirds of the players and managers in the Hall of Fame whose careers started after 1900 and who were elected by the BBWAA. But I never talked to Aaron one-on-one until he was past 70. Aaron and Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 home runs in Japan’s major leagues, were honored at the Japanese embassy in Washington by then-ambassador Ryozo Kato.
Aaron may be the only person, including U.S. presidents, who made me choke when it came time to ask questions. Maybe it was carrying his baseball card for so long until his image was almost worn away from years of affectionate handling.
He had a quiet, utterly composed, almost Buddha-like presence. It was like talking to a bronze statue that suddenly began speaking, slowly and thoughtfully, the least-rushed man alive.
“What did you look for at the plate?” is an easy conversation starter because the answer is always — always — “fastball.” You can’t look for anything else and still react quickly enough to hit the fastball.
Since I was probably close to 60 at the time, it did not seem appropriate to start with “you’ve been one of my heroes my whole life because of the way you played, because of how you handled the racist hate when you were chasing Ruth and because of your innate dignity in everything you’ve ever done.”
So I went with “What did you look for at the plate?”
“Curveball,” Aaron said. “Every pitch of every at-bat of my life I looked for a curveball.”
“No one can do that,” I said.
Hank Aaron just gave that little private smile. “I could,” was not necessary.
That evening, everyone got a ball signed by both Aaron and Oh. I keep mine on my office bookshelf at home, within arm’s reach. The signature of the great Oh on one side is quite clear. Aaron’s straightforward, flourish-free signature — confident, every letter clear, distinct and sure of itself — is faint and worn, thus seriously devalued as a memento.
Like his card in youth, it has been handled often in age. And will continue to be.