I love this photo. If there wasn’t already a story behind it, this is the kind of photo that would serve as a terrific writing prompt.
This picture was taken September 22, 1965, at the conclusion of the Milwaukee Braves’ last game in Milwaukee County Stadium. It was the Braves’ last home game before their move to Atlanta the following year. The photo depicts third baseman Eddie Mathews on the left along with Hank Aaron as they headed up the tunnel to the dressing room for the last time.
On November 30, 1961, Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs was selected as the National League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The outfielder hit 25 home runs and drove in 86 runs that year, and was selected on 10 of the 16 ballots cast by the writers. The runner-up in the voting, Braves catcher Joe Torre, received five votes from the writers.
Here’s an interesting find from the Library of Congress. Dated May 2, 1963, Branch Rickey wrote up a scouting report of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.
Cincinnati, Ohio May 2, 1963 Cincinnati vs Milwaukee
Surely one of the greatest hitters in baseball today. Can hit late with power, – good wrists. But in spite of his hitting record and admitted power ability, one cannot help think that Aaron is frequently a guess hitter. Will take three strikes down the middle and in fact frequently acts frozen on pitches. For years I have believed and I still believe that Aaron has more trouble with the breaking stuff. He stands close enough to the plate to pull the outside ball and does pull it. However, he is a foot length further from the plate than Frank Robinson of Cincinnati.
[Transcribed and reviewed by volunteers participating in the By The People project at crowd.loc.gov.]
It’s an interesting review of Aaron’s hitting, pretty much right in the middle of his MLB career. Looking at the box score, Aaron went 2-for-4 with a homer and 2 RBIs in this game, but also struck out twice.
While I am too young to have ever watched Aaron’s hitting, what limited knowledge I have makes me think Rickey might not have been alone in his perception of him as a “guess hitter.” At the same time, I would also wager that Aaron might have read pitches better than he sometimes let on.
If you’re interested, you can find the digital document on the Library of Congress website here.
This one truly breaks my heart. I have been a Hank Aaron fan for almost as long as I have been a baseball fan. I Had A Hammer is one of the first baseball biographies I ever picked up. When I attempted to play high school basketball one year (I was terrible at it), I was assigned jersey #44. And even though it was a different sport altogether, I still felt honored to wear the same number as the great Henry Aaron.
Henry Louis Aaron was born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. He played a total of 23 seasons in Major League Baseball, from 1954 through 1976. Twenty-one of those seasons he played with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and two seasons were with the Milwaukee Brewers. His 755 career home runs broke the long-standing MLB record set by Babe Ruth and stood for 33 years. Aaron also hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973 and is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least fifteen times.
Aaron’s chase after Babe Ruth’s career home run record stands as a notable period during his career, and not just because he ultimately did break the record. Aaron received thousands of letters every week during the summer of 1973; and during the 1973-1974 offseason, he received death threats and a large assortment of hate mail from people who did not want to see him break Ruth’s home run mark. Fortunately, Aaron also received mounds of of public support in response to the bigotry. As his autobiography demonstrates, Aaron handled himself with a tremendous amount of dignity throughout this period of undeserved hardship.
Hank Aaron holds the record for the most All-Star selections, with twenty-five, while sharing the record for most All-Star Games played (24) with Willie Mays and Stan Musial. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner, and in 1957, he won the NL MVP Award when the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series. Aaron also holds MLB records for the most career RBIs (2,297), extra base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856).
After his retirement, Aaron held front office roles with the Atlanta Braves, including senior vice president. Hank Aaron was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility, with an astonishing 97.8% of the vote. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
Henry Aaron died in his sleep on January 22, 2021. Rest in peace.
Phil Niekro pitched for 24 seasons in Major League Baseball, spending 20 of those seasons with the Braves, both in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Niekro’s 318 career victories are the most by a knuckleball pitcher and rank 16th on MLB’s all-time wins list. He won the NL Gold Glove Award five times, was selected for five All-Star teams, and led the league in victories twice and in ERA once.
Niekro also earned the Lou Gehrig Award, the Roberto Clemente Award, and the Brian Piccolo Award for his humanitarian service off the field. He also served on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors since 2009. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Phil Niekro died December 26, 2020 after a battle with cancer. He was 81 years old.
The 1957 Cy Young award was accorded on November 28th to Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves. Spahn was voted the league’s best pitcher almost unanimously, as the only competition for the award that year was White Sox hurler Dick Donovan, who received one vote. Spahn finished the 1957 season with a 21-11 record and a 2.69 ERA.
Lou Perini announced on March 13, 1953 that he would be seeking permission from the National League to move his franchise from Boston to Milwaukee. The Braves owner pointed to poor attendance as the reason for wanting to relocate the club. This date would come to be known as “Black Friday” in Boston.
After a long hiatus, due to having to return the series to the library and wait for others to finish their turns with it before having my chance at checking it out again, I have finally made it back around to watching the Ninth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. This installment in the series covers the time period from 1970 to 1993, the ending representing present day at the time, as the series was originally released in 1994.
The Ninth Inning opens with a baseball game being played between a pair of Dominican teams. A couple players from one of the teams give interviews expressing the importance of baseball to the Dominican culture. “It’s like a religion,” one player says. “There’s never been a revolution or war during baseball season.” Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling compares baseball to the opera, insisting the two are essentially the same kind of thing.
On this disc we learn about Brooks Robinson leading the Orioles to the 1970 World Series championship against Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1971, the Orioles found themselves on the losing side of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente of the Pirates made a name for himself during this period. He was an icon for both the black community and for the Puerto Rican community, and he gave back to society as much as he could. On New Years Eve of 1971, however, Clemente’s plane crashed in an effort to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake.
Baseball’s reserve clause met its end during this time period. Curt Flood’s battle in the courts against the clause at the start of the decade came away largely fruitless, though it did serve to bring the issue into the public spotlight. In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of Marvin Miller, took on the reserve clause by claiming free agency. In the end, the reserve clause was abolished and players were now eligible for free agency after six years. This, as we see through today, resulted in an explosion of baseball salaries. The collusion of baseball owners in the late-1980s threatened this newfound free agent market, in much the same way owners once had observed the “gentleman’s agreement” to never sign a black player. This collusion, however, would soon get exposed and would cost the owners a considerable sum.
The treatment of both Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood highlighted the points made by Jackie Robinson shortly before his death. Certainly, as Buck O’Neil mentions, a lot changed in baseball, and in American society, as a result of Robinson’s role in breaking the color barrier. Nevertheless, baseball still had a long way to go in terms of racial equality. Henry Aaron knew all about this reality, playing for the Braves and chasing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. The hate mail sent to Aaron, some of which gets read in this episode, sends chills down my spine. In 1974, Hank Aaron did break Ruth’s record, and deservedly so. The 1987 interview of Al Campanis regarding the reasons behind a lack of blacks in baseball management drove home the existence of the persisting prejudice.
The Oakland A’s of the 1970s drew attention, not only due to their excellent performance, but also due to the appearance of their players. Players were given bonuses to grow their hair out, and many went on to sport some quite interesting facial hair. Catfish Hunter’s pitching for Oakland was stellar, almost unfair in the eyes of some hitters, who noticed the strike zone seemed to grow larger whenever Hunter took the mound.
The Cincinnati Reds returned to the World Series in 1975, this time against the Boston Red Sox. Not only did the Reds have Pete Rose on their roster, but also boasted of names like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Joe Morgan. Game 6 of this Series proved one for the history books, featuring Carlton Fisk’s dramatic walk-off home run for Boston in the twelfth inning to tie the Series at three. Cincinnati would win the Series, however, in Game 7. As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the various stories told by pitcher Bill Lee on this disc. The man was certainly a character. He speaks candidly and hilariously about his own experiences, blunders, and shortcomings, and his wild gesturing made it just as fun to watch him speak as it was to listen.
The 1970s saw the rise of George Steinbrenner as owner of the New York Yankees. Free agency worked in Steinbrenner’s favor, and he spent freely to build a winning organization. Though they lost the 1976 World Series, they won it in 1977 and 1978, led by Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner became notorious for running through managers like a child runs through fads, bolstering his reputation for trying to buy his way to championships.
The 1979 Series featured Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, led by Pete Rose, who had signed with them after becoming a free agent. Rose would return to the Reds later in his career. Nolan Ryan also took advantage of free agency, dominating from the pitcher’s mound with multiple teams. After the collusion among the owners was busted up, baseball contracts exploded, and player after player made headlines as the newest highest paid player.
After this point, the documentary ceased to cover every single World Series championship, but rather focused on the ones that would be deemed “most popular” in baseball history. The 1986 World Series saw a continuation of the Curse of the Bambino. The Boston Red Sox lost the Series in a stunning fashion to the New York Mets. After giving up what seemed like a sure victory in Game 6, the Red Sox also lost Game 7. The 1988 World Series went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a championship victory that included the unbelievable tale of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 in spite of his injuries.
In August 1989, Pete Rose was banished from baseball. Bart Giamatti gave the announcement in a press conference, stating that Rose’s involvement in gambling had hurt the game, and that the game must be held to the highest standards. In spite of a depressing end to the 1980s, and in spite of all the scandals and other struggles in baseball, John Thorn and Buck O’Neil exalt the continuing survivalist spirit of baseball. Admittedly, the timing of these statement is a bit ironic, considering that the next World Series after this documentary was released, the 1994 Series, did not get played due to the players’ strike. In spite of that, baseball did come back, and I’d say the fact that so many baseball blogs, such as this one, exist is a testament to the continuing love and wonder that baseball brings.