“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.”