Tuesday, 26 January 2021

HENRY AARON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Henry Aaron is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, although my preferred first reference for him would be Henry, not Hank. I wrote it some time ago, then revised it briefly, trying to explain in more detail the civil rights situation in Atlanta and how important Aaron was there--I would have liked to have spent more time on the exact nature of the abuse he received while chasing Babe Ruth's record, and I probably should have mentioned that the response of the crowd at Fulton County Stadium when he did was a standing ovation. RIP Hammerin Hank. 

Lots of people, including me, mentioned Aaron's consistency. I noted in the obit that he benefited from the Braves moving from County Stadium in Milwaukee, which was a tough home run park for righties, to Fulton County Stadium "The Launching Pad" in Atlanta. According to baseball historican Bill James, Joe Adcock, who was Aaron's teammate for nine years, hit more homers per at bat than Aaron, and lost more homers to his ballpark than anyone in history other than Joe DiMaggio and Goose Goslin. Eddie Matthews, who batted left, holds the HR record for the Milwaukee part of the Braves years. Of course the other big change came in 1969, after Carl Yastrzemski staged a late season surge to win the AL batting title with a meagre .301, when the mound was lowered and strike zone shrunk, to, in James' words, stop Bob Gibson from pitching 32 shutouts a year. This came in a comment about Eddie Collins, another all-time great with a long career whose stats look better as he got older. But by James' 'Win Shares' method, he pointed out each was actually most effective in his late 20s. They didn't become  'better' players as they aged, but circumstances became more favourable for them and they were still great enough to take advantage of that.

Just this morning I read in an NFL column by Peter King a fantastic story; it wouldn't have made this obituary, but I can share it here: Aaron was a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. He was originally drawn to the Browns (there were no NFL teams in the South when he was young, and the Miami team in the AAFC (in which the Browns played) was short-lived. It was also segregated, and the Browns left their black players at home when they travelled to Miami in 1946. But the presence of black stars like Bill Willis and Marion Motley made them young Aaron's favourite team when they joined the NFL in 1950. They were dismissed by NFL partisans, yet they beat the defending NFL champion Eagles in theur very first game, and won the league title at the end of the season. Aaron had liked them as underdog heroes, with black stars alongside greats like Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli, and he was hooked.

As an adult, Aaron would buy a single ticket in the "Dawg Pound" end zone section, fly up from Atlanta incognito, and cheer anonymously among the Browns' most fervent fans. But in 1986, when he took a trip to watch the team in preseason, Browns GM Ernie Accorsi, a big baseball fan, recognised him. He went up and introduced himself and Aaron said "I know you you are. It's an honor to meet you." The became friends, but although Accorsi offered him better seats gratis, or a view from a box, Aaron preferred to stay in the Pound. "I didn't throw bones or do crazy stuff like that," he said, but he felt commfortable studying the game with the most enthralled fans.

I also had to leave out the idea that, had the Giants offered him just a little more money, they could have had both Aaron and Willie Mays in their outfield. Although Mays too had been offered a contract by the Boston Braves, before he signed with New York.

One last point: when Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, the major leagues were, of course, integrated, but the Negro American League actually continued until 1962. The Clowns are said to have begun in Miami around 1935, though I have a replica hat from the Ethopian Clowns, who barnstormed just after that, which was the team they morphed into before settling in Cincinnati and then Indy. It was my cricket cap when I kept wicket for ABC Sports London cricket club. When Aaron left the team, the Clowns signed a woman, Toni Stone, to play second base. The following year they sold her contract to the Kansas Cith Monarchs, and replaced her with two other women. The Clowns continued to barnstorm as entertainers after the NAL folded, and finally gave up themselves in 1989.

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