“The best thing I could have done is play with Hank Aaron, and be with Hank every day.”
The first person I thought of when I heard that Hank Aaron died was Dusty Baker. I never met Aaron, but I’ve spent significant time around Dusty, and it was obvious from the beginning how much reverence Baker holds for the man.
Here’s the thing about that. Dusty is among the most charismatic figures I’ve ever interviewed, a man who commands the attention of a room simply by being in it. He would drop life lessons as a matter of course during his pregame press conferences while managing the Giants. I found myself in a constant state of wonder around him.
So to see a man like that in such obvious awe of somebody else—even a peer, which is what Aaron was to Baker, in addition to being a mentor—speaks volumes about the nature of Hank Aaron’s character. The sheer number of times that Dusty refers to lessons that Aaron taught him can be overwhelming.
Going through interviews I did with Baker for They Bled Blue and The Baseball Codes, a pattern quickly emerges:
- “Hank Aaron always used to tell me to go out in the elements get used to them …”
- “Hank told us no matter what you do, stay together …”
- “Hank told me don’t bunt on Drysdale, don’t showboat, don’t dig in against him …”
- “Hank taught us not to clown or showboat …”
- “Hank told me and Ralph Garr to work out during the strike …”
- “Hank taught us to walk behind the umpire on your way to the plate …”
- “Hank used to tell me Don Newcombe didn’t like you hitting the ball up the middle on him …”
- “Hank would to tell us all the time to keep the umpire in the equation. If he was a shorter umpire, he was gonna be a low-ball umpire. A taller guy would be a high-strike umpire …”
- “I came from the Hank Aaron school, where you just run around the bases …”
See a pattern?
I’ve long harbored a deep admiration of Aaron, aided Baker’s unyielding appreciation. Baseball lost one of its brightest lights, now or ever, today.
I’ll close with something Dusty told me one spring training many years ago:
“I say ‘Hank Aaron taught me this,’ or ‘Hank Aaron taught me that,’ because it’s not right for me to say I thought something up when I didn’t. People are always saying, ‘Dusty, what do you know on your own? You’re always using other people’s names.’ Well, I can’t act like the genius expert who invented all this stuff. There’s not a whole lot of new knowledge—there’s just a lot of old stuff that people are trying to make new.”
Aaron had the good stuff, and Dusty knew it. He’s spent a lot of years making sure that we know it, too.
Rest in peace, Hammer.