“Yeah, I played ball with Hank Aaron,” said the old man on the phone. “Long time ago. He was a good man.”
Eighty-five-year-old Howie Bedell played with the Milwaukee Braves during the golden era. He started playing professional baseball during an era when names like Mays, Mantle, Snider, and Jackie were household names.
I talked to Howie this afternoon. He was in his living room in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I’ve never met Howie before today. Actually, the way we met was: I looked his name up in the phonebook and took a chance.
When he answered the phone I could hear a TV blaring in the background. I heard a dog barking at the back door. I heard his wife whisper, “Who’s on the phone?”
He shushed her and said, “It’s someone calling about Hank.”
So I asked a few questions.
“Well,” Howie began, “I first met Hank Aaron at spring training in Bradenton, Florida. I was a rookie, I drove down to Florida from Pennsylvania in my first car after I signed.”
The year was 1957. Eisenhower was president. Patsy Cline was on the radio. Gasoline was 30 cents a gallon. The Little Rock Nine had just enrolled in high school.
Howie was 22, newly acquired by the Braves minor league system. He batted left. Threw right. He stood six-one. He was 185 pounds of legs that could sprint to first base in 2.9 seconds.
“When I showed up to practice, I was nervous. I’s sitting in the dugout when someone said, ‘Hey, Howie, take the field and warm up.’”
Howie jogged to the outfield in an empty stadium. Two other players also exited the dugout: the 26-year-old third-baseman, Eddie Matthews; and a 23-year-old centerfielder from Alabama who everyone called Hank.
Howie’s heart was pounding in his throat. He stood in centerfield, crouched in a fielder’s stance, punching his mitt, trying to breathe.
Howie watched young Aaron limber up with his bat. He was solid, tall, skin like fresh coffee, wearing a perpetual half smile. “Hey, Howie!” Aaron said. “You want me to hit you a one-hopper or two-hopper ground ball?”
Howie gave a nervous chuckle. Was this guy for real? No batter on earth could predict what kind of hit he’d get, let alone how many hops.
“Is he serious?” Howie whispered to the pitcher.
“Just shut up and watch,” was the answer.
“Make it a one-hopper!”
“Comin’ right up!”
The windup. The pitch. Crack!
Sure enough, it was a one-hopper. Howie caught the ball. You could have knocked Howie over with dandelion fuzz.
The Alabamian kid was just getting started. “Howie, here’s a two-hopper, comin’ atcha!”
Crack! Bounce. Bounce. Catch. This was pure wizardry.
“Who IS this guy?” mumbled Howie.
The pitcher turned around and said, “That’s Henry.”
Then I asked Howie what Aaron was like off the field.
“Oh, gosh, he was so quiet. And gentle. And so unassuming. I never heard him talk about himself. And listen, people have no idea the abuse he went through because of the color of his skin.
“In those days he wasn’t even allowed to eat with us. They made him eat meals on the bus sometimes. But he always had that smile, even in the midst of the bad times. Like I said, he was a good man.”
Howie still remembers the day Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record, much later in Aaron’s career. Howie recalls exactly where he was sitting when Aaron’s name was transformed into folklore.
The year was 1974, Nixon was in office. Stevie Wonder was on the radio. Aaron had been receiving death threats and racist hate mail for months regarding the issue of breaking the record.
It was a chilly April night. There were 53,775 fans in Atlanta’s Fulton-County Stadium, the largest crowd the stadium had ever seen. Millions more watched at home. TVs were glowing from Maine to California.
Aaron hit his 715th home run.
Fans flooded the infield. People cheered until they lost their voices. And 54,000 rejoicing Georgians nearly reduced the stadium into rubble.
Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said over the airwaves: “What a marvelous moment for the country, and the world… A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South…”
A marvelous moment indeed. Maybe the most marvelous the sport has ever known.
This morning, however, wasn’t so marvelous. Howie awoke early. He shuffled into the den and flipped on the TV. On the screen he saw the image of his old teammate. A caption below the image read: “Hank Aaron, 1934-2021.”
The old man collapsed into his chair. The memories got so thick he had to swat them away like gnats.
“It’s been a hard year, with this pandemic and all. But now this… At my age, seems like all my teammates are dying, and it’s just hard. This year we’ve had to skip too many funerals ‘cause of this virus…”
And so tonight the game changes once again with the loss of another forebear. But then, this is nothing new for baseball, or life. The game is always changing. Each year the players get cockier. And younger. And each year, we lose another hero who taught children how to believe in magic.
Even so, you will find nothing melancholy in Howie’s voice today. Because the spirit of our game is never dismal. Not even in loss.
“God, I love this game,” he says with a sigh. “I’ve played ball in every state, every ballpark, every city, a hundred times. I’ve done everything you can do, from coaching at first base, to cutting the grass. I’ve seen every kind of man and kid who ever came through this game and…”
He pauses. He takes a breath. His voice gets shakier.
“And I’m telling you, Hank Aaron was a good man.”
Tammy S. - January 23, 2021 6:42 am
RIP Hammerin’ Hank! You were so much more than just baseball, but we are thankful that was part of God’s plan for your life too. Now you get to enjoy and hear the words “Well done, good and faithful one…enter into the joy of your Lord.”
Ann Mills - January 23, 2021 7:04 am
Thanks. RIP Mr. Aaron. Retire #44 MLB.
Leigh Amiot - January 23, 2021 7:26 am
Eighty-six, what a good run!
Sandi. - January 23, 2021 8:30 am
I vividly recall when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. We were living in the Atlanta area at the time, and the city went wild with excitement. Most baseball fans were ecstatic, myself included. He was a very good man and a very good ball player. God rest his soul.
Christina - January 23, 2021 9:19 am
What a legend he was and what a legacy of gentleness and strength he left! He broke more than home run records. He broke the ugliness of racism. Indeed he was a very good man. RIP
Bill Dennis - January 23, 2021 11:38 am
Thanks so much for this Sean. I think maybe you’re not really old until your childhood hero dies. Since yesterday, I’ve started feeling pretty old. It always broke my heart that Henry Aaron had to endure so much racial hate. I always wanted to meet him and tell him, there were a lot of little white kids like me who loved him. And always will.
Virginia Russell - January 23, 2021 11:50 am
Stephen A Purvis - January 23, 2021 12:06 pm
I am really glad to read a simple edifying piece on a man I be the greatest ball player ever. It saddens me to hear how he was treated poorly, I guarantee that would not have happened at my grandparents house, Boo Boo and Tom loved our Hank. Thank you sir for giving me a worthy hero!
Jan - January 23, 2021 12:41 pm
Sean, this is one of your very best! And I am not even a baseball fan. Your descriptions of the man, the era and the world at that time are very thought provoking. Thank you.
bubbastubbs - January 23, 2021 2:19 pm
Truly one of my childhood heroes! As a ten-year-old, I was oblivious to the horrific racial matters that affected him. I only knew that, along with Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente’, Bob Gibson, and “Hammerin’ Hank” (among others), I became one of the “boys of summer”, giving me so very many fond memories of my childhood. What a time to be alive—though as naive as I was, these fellows were every bit of what model sports heroes SHOULD be for today’s youth. May God bless you Hank, you’re now a real HEAVENLY all star!
KATY - January 23, 2021 2:34 pm
🌼OH HENRY! 🌸
AlaRedClayGirl - January 23, 2021 2:59 pm
I still have the newspaper article when he broke the record. Unlike so many of athletes today, Hank was a true role model for children.
Barbara F. Harrington - January 23, 2021 3:09 pm
Thanks for this wonderful tribute to Hank. Yes indeed baseball is not the same.
Bobbie - January 23, 2021 3:20 pm
I remember where we were that nite…driving to our little cabin on Florida’s panhandle. The radio was on and we were holding our breath ! What an exciting moment. I wasn’t a fan of baseball except when Hank was playing…there was something about him. So sad to hear what he went thru just because his skin was black. I never heard any of that. But there wasn’t news in our face constantly then, so thankfully we were spared some of the ugliness. Just wish he could’ve been. Hank is a legend. His name lives on! Thank you, Hank Aaron, and thank you Sean. One of your best‼️‼️
Phil (Brown Marlin) - January 23, 2021 3:24 pm
Yep, Aaron was a great one. Howie described him well – quiet, unassuming, always smiling, in spite of the abuse he and others like Robinson took. Basically, it seems that he just played baseball and lived his life. Contrast that to today’s athletes, many who seem to have some “righteous” agenda. As kids we had baseball heroes to look up to. My cousin and I would practice the famous Willie Mays “basket catch.” I was fortunate to get to see Hank Aaron play numerous times in Atlanta. Got to see other greats play there, too.
joan moore - January 23, 2021 3:26 pm
I’m picturing Hank asking God if He wants it over the Crystal River or the Pearly Gates.Good job, Sean.
Guy Brierre - January 23, 2021 3:29 pm
In the fall of 1973 we moved to Atlanta the first semester of my junior year. I went to an all-boys Episcopal Military High School – Marist Academy. To meet people I became the manager of the football team (mainly washing jocks & socks).
One day during my washing duties I saw this older black man wearing jeans and a plain white t-shirt with a fairly pronounced beer belly but he also had forearms as big as tree trunks. As appropriate for the time I assumed it was a new janitor. I had heard rumor that Hank Aaron’s two sons went to my school but hadn’t evidenced anything to prove it.
After finishing my laundry duties I went out to the practice field. The black man was talking to the coaches. I walked up and the coaches introduced me to Hank Aaron.
The baseball season had just ended and he wanted to spend more time with his sons. Hank hit 40 dingers that season but ended up falling one short of tying the Babe, he would have to wait until the following year to tie and break the Babe’s record. Sure enough our running back Henry was Hank’s son and his younger son was on the JV team. During practice Hank and I would throw the football back and forth. That went on practically every day for the remainder of the season (when Hank couldn’t pick up his sons the Braves mascot Chief Knock-a-homa would do so).
After practice he (and I) would sit and talk with the coaches while the players showered. He talked about the pressures of chasing the record but he never let on about the death threats. He was an amazing man and I was lucky enough to get to know him at that time in his history.
Rest in Peace Hammerin’ Hank!
billllly - January 23, 2021 3:30 pm
Great piece, Sean! Thank you.
Randy - January 23, 2021 3:59 pm
What a great tribute to a beloved baseball hero!
allisvant - January 23, 2021 5:13 pm
I was 11 when Mantle & Maris dueled it out in the summer of ’61 & it killed me when Mickey got hurt at the end of the season & wasn’t able to battle Roger to the end; so when Terry Cashman wrote Talkin’ Baseball – Willie, Mickey & the Duke in 1981, I loved it because it memorialized 3 of the greatest players ever to “compete” with one another in the same city; all 3 were flamboyant in their own way; but when all was said & done the stats of a quiet & unassuming right fielder named “Hank” surpassed them all; I was fortunate to see Hank play several game at Atlanta-Fulton Co. Stadium and saw him hit his last HR as a Brave; RIP, Hank, you were loved & appreciated as a player & as a man by the overwhelming majority of us Braves fans!
Linda Moon - January 23, 2021 5:52 pm
I met Hank Aaron once at a Minor League ballpark. I’ll never forget his smile and friendliness to a fan who had the audacity to ask him, “Can I shake your hand?” He smiled as he extended it to me. And we shook hands! Gosh, I’ll miss that good man.
Jan Hilton - January 23, 2021 6:14 pm
What a wonderful tribute to my hero. The Braves organization has had it rough lately. Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and now Henry Aaron. The deaths of Phil and Don hit me hard, but this last one had me quietly sobbing at my desk in my office.
AUTigrr - January 23, 2021 6:16 pm
As a kid growing up in GA, I was always the Hammer at the plate in whiffle ball. Mr. Aaron, thanks for the joyous memories and the kind of man all kids could look up to as you played ball and how you lived off the field!
AUTigrr - January 23, 2021 6:18 pm
Jane - January 23, 2021 6:31 pm
We all loved Hank. Seems as if the players these days have lost that selfless love of the game. Or maybe I’m just old. Or old – fashioned.
Sue Cronkite - January 23, 2021 7:34 pm
Wonderful memorial to a good man.
Barbara J Schweck - January 23, 2021 8:56 pm
I am ashamed of the racism that this fine man had to endure. However,he loved baseball so much that I think that must have helped him endure it. Such a man of integrity and strength. Very well respected by Atlantans and such a positive role model for some many. I did get to see him make that hit!! What a day it was!
Pam Beauchamp - January 23, 2021 8:57 pm
Yes he was a good man. He played ball with my late husband, Jim Beauchamp and Jim also played and roomed with Hanks brother Tommy. Then in 1985 Jim was hired to be a minor league manager in the Braves system and Hank became his boss. There are many special memories of Hank and the good man that he was. RIP HANK‼️
Bob Brenner - January 24, 2021 12:00 am
A fitting tribute for an exceptional human being and a great great baseball player! ❤️⚾️
Paul Alge Moore - January 24, 2021 5:50 pm
I was 15 years old. We got up early that Sunday morning in the Florida panhandle and Mom and Dad drove me and my little brother and sister to Atlanta to see our 2 local hero’s play. A doubleheader with the Dodgers. I saw Don Sutton pitch and after Hank Aaron hit his second homer of the day my Dad bought 2 beers from the guy hollering ( Budweiser). He handed me one. Hammering Hank. Cheers 🍻
Charaleen Wright - February 5, 2021 6:12 am
Julie - February 7, 2021 5:36 pm
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”, said Charles Schulz.
You’re a Good Man, Hank Aaron”, said Howie Bedell.