Upon hearing the news of Hank Aaron’s death at the age of 86 on Friday, we went searching in FBB’s archive for any Aaron-related stories we could find, and came up with a couple old-ish anecdotes worth sharing.
Some of the stories come from the player who was on deck in Atlanta, Georgia when Aaron hit his historic 715th home run and passed Babe Ruth on the list of Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leaders, Dusty Baker, and others come from another one-time Nationals’ skipper, Davey Johnson, who was teammates with Aaron in 1974-75 with the Braves.
Baker debuted in the majors with Atlanta in 1968, at 19, and was teammates with a then-34-year-old Aaron, who made a promise to the younger player’s mother, telling her he would keep on eye on her son, about whom Aaron once said, “You could tell he had ‘major league star’ written all over him.”
“He told my mom that he would take care of me like I was his son when I first signed,” Baker recalled.
“He made me go to church. He made me do everything. Eat right, sleep right, train right.
“How to conduct yourself, how to be a pro.”
“Hank Aaron had us eat our main meal at twelve to one o’clock, no later, for the ballgame, get up and eat breakfast, which I didn’t really like, and it worked for him,” Baker added.
If it worked for Aaron, of course the younger players followed that plan as well.
Baker, during his time on the bench in D.C., also shared advice Aaron had given him back in their playing days, when he asked by reporters about the struggles one of his relievers, Jonathan Papelbon, was experiencing pitching against the Phillies, the closer’s former team.
“A lot of times if you’re not locating well or you’re hanging a pitch is when you’re trying too hard. Hank Aaron always told me the most dangerous pitcher was a relaxed pitcher.
“Because — he’d go up there first and he’d get all these hangers and nothing sinkers and I’d get up there and he said, ‘They’re not afraid of you and the damage is done.’
“They wanted to throw him that hecka-slider and it just spins and the hecka-sinker and it just runs.
“And so maybe [Papelbon] is just not relaxed against his former team, according to the Hank Aaron Theory.”
Then there’s this story from Davey Johnson, who talked about what he learned about the game by just watching Aaron in batting practice while they were teammates in Atlanta.
“I used to watch Hank Aaron,” Johnson said. “He was fascinating to watch take BP. He never hit a ball out of the ballpark in BP. Never. And he was just a marvelous thing to watch. He was so relaxed and working on just hitting little line drives and ground balls, two-hopper ground balls through the infield and soft line drives. And he only took batting practice during the year maybe once a week. And there’s something to be learned from that because I asked him one time, ‘Why do you just swing like maybe 50%?’ and he said, ‘I’m timing a guy throwing 60 [mph], I can always turn the volume up,’ and I said, ‘Well that’s right.’”
Aaron also told Johnson why he famously said he always looked for a breaking ball on every pitch that was thrown to him.
“I asked him, ‘What do you look for up there?’ and he said, ‘I always look for a breaking ball.’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, because they can’t throw the fastball by me.’ I said, ‘You got that right!’”
Here’s what Baker and Johnson had to say when they learned of Aaron passing on Friday:
I texted the great Davey Johnson to get his thoughts on the passing of his #Braves teammate Hank Aaron. Davey wrote back: "Loved him. Can't talk, in hospital with COVID-19 getting treatment. He was my idol and friend." Wishing Davey strength.— Ken Davidoff (@KenDavidoff) January 22, 2021
RIP, Mr. Aaron. Get well soon, Mr. Johnson. And you’re missed in D.C., Mr. Baker.