Why the legendary Hank Aaron meant so much to Milwaukee
Sitting in the upper deck of old County Stadium, I had to peek around a pillar to get a glimpse of Hank Aaron as he was introduced to the Milwaukee crowd of 51,480 at the 1975 All-Star Game.
All it took was for the public-address announcer to say, "From the Milwaukee Brewers ..." for the crescendo to begin.
Sustained applause washed over Aaron as he was introduced along the first-base line as one of the American League's reserve players. The crowd rose again as Aaron came to bat in the second inning as a pinch hitter.
Aaron, who died Friday just short of his 87th birthday, broke Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record of 714 as a member of the Atlanta Braves in 1974. But it was while the Braves were in Milwaukee from 1953-65 that Aaron began to gain fame, helping to lead the Braves to a world championship in 1957 and a World Series appearance in 1958.
So it was no surprise that Aaron's death hit the Wisconsin city hard.
"It's been a tough day up here," said Tom Haudricourt, the longtime Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "One of the news stations is doing their whole broadcast on Hank this afternoon. The Braves might be the most impacted organization, but the Braves used to be in Milwaukee."
Aaron signed with the Braves in 1952 while they were still the Boston Braves. He made his big-league debut in 1954 and played with the Braves through the 1974 season, when he broke Ruth's record.
Enter a man named Bud Selig.
After the Braves took off for Atlanta, Milwaukee businessman Selig made it his mission to bring baseball back to his home city. He succeeded in 1970, when he engineered the relocation of the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee.
The Brewers weren't much of a team in those years, but Selig had the brainstorm of bringing Aaron "home" to Milwaukee. Selig helped facilitate a trade of Aaron from the Braves to the Brewers, and even though Aaron's best years were behind him, his return to Milwaukee gave the Brewers a measure of credibility in addition to delighting the burghers of Milwaukee.
"I'm absolutely heartbroken, heartsick," Selig told the Journal Sentinel Friday in an interview with Haudricourt. "This is so devastating. I know some people may quarrel with it but I've always said he was the greatest player of our generation. But he was a better human being. I'm so sad.
"When you think back to what he accomplished on the field, he was an even greater man off it. He was the same nice, wonderfully decent human being that he was when I first met him in 1958."
Aaron forged a lifelong friendship with Selig, as he did with Brewers radio broadcaster Bob Uecker, a former teammate of Aaron's.
"They were truly the three amigos," Haudricourt said. "They were all born in 1934, Hank and Uecker 10 days apart. Bud got to know Hank first as a fan of the Braves. Once he became owner of the Brewers, Bud brought Hank back in '75-76, and it was a stroke of genius. It kind of brought Hank full circle to where it all started."
In his retirement, Aaron remained a presence, both in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
"It was amazing, really," said Jimmy Bank, the traveling secretary for the Brewers from 1983-92. Bank later worked in that capacity for the Cubs. "Part of the reason was his personality. He was so nice, so pleasant, always smiling, always agreeable to autographs for people. He was not only well liked, but revered, in Milwaukee.
"Hank thought Uecker was the funniest guy who ever walked on earth. It was great to see them together. It was fun to see them laughing together. Bud just adored the guy just because for what Hank did for baseball and for Milwaukee baseball."
Former Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins said Friday on a Zoom call with Chicago reporters that he remembers facing Aaron in 1965 as a September call-up while with the Phillies. Jenkins said that even though Barry Bonds broke Aaron's all-time home run record of 755, he did so in baseball's so-called Steroid Era and that Jenkins still considers Aaron the all-time home run king.
"I never played against Barry Bonds, but Hank Aaron 11 years," Jenkins said. "I truly think that he is still the all-time home run hitter in baseball. I just think that what he had to go through to get there (facing racism), he was consistent, hitting 40-plus home runs ever season. He never hit 50. He just went out and did his job on a daily basis.
"I mentioned a few times, my first All-Star Game was in Anaheim. He's playing left. (Willie) Mays is in center. (Roberto) Clemente's in right. I would love to have that outfield on a daily basis playing behind me."
As far as Aaron's legacy in Milwaukee, Haudricourt says it goes beyond baseball.
"As great as a baseball player as he was, and he's probably top five, he was twice as great a man," he said. "He loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and they loved him right back."
• Bruce Miles covered the Chicago Cubs for the Daily Herald from 1998-2019. Follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceMiles2112