Billy Williams reflects on Hank Aaron's legacy, Alabama baseball roots
Such was Henry Aaron's aura of endurance and the legacy of his indomitable spirit that his death came as a shock not only to fans but to contemporaries like Cubs legend Billy Williams.
"It was a hurt feeling," said the Hall of Famer and fellow Alabama native about hearing the news. "You'd think a guy like this would live forever. You knew he was getting up in age, but you would think, 'This guy would live forever.' "
He said that when he called two weeks ago, "I talked to his wife, and she told me he was doing pretty good."
He remembered Aaron saying, "Don't think of me as a great baseball player. Think of me as a great individual."
"He was both of them," Williams said.
Williams and Aaron shared much in common, especially their Alabama roots.
Aaron was from Mobile, and Williams was from Whistler, a few miles away.
"I used to go down and see him play with the Mobile Black Bears, because I had a brother on the same team," he said.
Aaron was a second baseman, and Clyde Williams was a left-handed pitcher.
He continued to follow Aaron's progress, which brought him to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League to the Milwaukee Braves of the National League.
"You always followed him because he was a Mobile hero," he said. "He was a hero to all of the Blacks, because he went through the Negro League and all of a sudden he was playing in the major leagues, and we all kept up with him."
When Williams reached the majors himself, "We did a lot of things together," including get-togethers in Atlanta. "When I would play the Braves, a lot of people would come up from Mobile, maybe two or three busloads, to come up and see the game between the Braves and the Cubs."
Williams also mentioned that Henry's brother Tommie was also on the Braves.
After the game, "Some of the people that we knew growing up" would have dinner together.
"It was the same way," he said, "when Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones came down with the Mets, being from Mobile. We all got together like that. Aaron was one of the guys that inspired us."
He said that the Mobile group, including Agee, Jones, Willie McCovey and Billy's brother Franklin, who played minor league ball with the Pirates, would work out together weeks before going to spring training.
"We would hit around. We would catch some ground balls. Catch some fly balls. And then we would go sit in the stands. And because he had played in the major leagues, we would ask him a lot of stuff. The information he gave us was tremendous."
Williams said Aaron was a great all-around player.
"A lot of people look at him as a hitter. But he was an outstanding baserunner, outstanding fielder, had a great arm. I guess he played the game with ease. He wasn't flashy, but he got the job done."
Williams remembered a number of memorable games between the Braves and the Cubs. Outside of his home parks in Milwaukee and Atlanta, the park where Aaron hit most of his home runs was Wrigley Field.
But one home run that would have spoiled Kenny Holtzman's no-hitter in 1969 at Wrigley Field was taken away by Williams himself.
"The wind was blowing in about 35 to 40 mph. Henry normally hit line drives. But he happened to get this ball up, I think it was a curve ball. And he got the ball up, and all of a sudden, I looked at the ball. I looked twice. And the wind blew the ball back. I remember catching the ball, because I had a little bit more space to go and catch it. And as I caught the ball, throwing it back in the infield, I could see him kicking the bag. This was the one time he showed emotion, because he thought he had a home run to break up the no-hitter."
Williams remembered another game in Milwaukee that he thought was going to be called on account of snow.
He called to check with Yosh Kawano, the Cubs equipment manager, who said he needed to get to the ballpark right away.
"It was about 30-some degrees. It was snowing. And at that time, Aaron was hitting the ball to right field. Of course, that was the year I was playing right field. And he hit this line drive to me. It seemed like when that ball hit in my glove, everything was frozen. It was a tough day to catch a ball from Henry Aaron."
As with other players from the area, Aaron, Williams said, was always complimentary of players from Mobile, "because we tried to keep the standard of the player from Mobile on a higher level."
Williams remembers how tough times were for Aaron as he edged closer to Ruth's home run record.
"I remember it was a terrible time for him," Williams said, who said Aaron was also having family troubles.
"After the games, I would go and sit and talk to him. He was really disappointed about the (threatening) letters, but he knew, growing up around Mobile, what would happen.
"Here is a guy, a Black guy, (breaking the record of) an icon of major league baseball. And of course, he happened to be white. And nobody wanted Aaron to break a record, let alone breaking a white guy's record who hit more home runs in baseball than anybody.
"So the letters, he showed me some of them. He had a lot of problems. He had to have a guard around him. He had to have protection for his kids. A lot of people don't know that."
Williams, though, recalls his joy at seeing Ruth's record shattered April 8, 1974.
"Everybody was watching the game. I think he went to Cincinnati he and didn't play. I think he wanted to break the record in Atlanta.
"To see that on television, when he hit the home run, and I just put myself in his place knowing that the weight had been lifted off his shoulders."