Memories of Hank Aaron by a Professional Autograph Hound

My last photo with Hank Aaron, July 28, 2018. (Photo: Kevin Keating Collection)

By Kevin Keating

It felt like a gut-punch last Friday when I learned that Hank Aaron had died.  Hank became the tenth member of the baseball Hall of Fame to pass since last April, following Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda, and Don Sutton.  Like so many, I admired them all.

I had met them all, too. Some were friends. The passing of so many icons in such a short period has been painful for baseball fans.  But Hank Aaron’s loss was different.  He had broken Babe Ruth’s all-time record to become our national pastime’s home run king.  I can still remember how his record chase lifted the collective morale of the country during the summer of Watergate in 1973. He was more than iconic, he was a national treasure.  Hammerin’ Hank transcended the game, and his loss was a loss for our country.

I had been in Hank’s presence many times, and twice I had photos with him. When I learned of his death, my mind was flooded with memories of the legend, and especially my first and last meetings with him when those two pictures were taken.

The last was snapped in the plaque gallery at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, during the 2018 induction weekend.  Hank looked so happy and relaxed as he sat with his wife in proximity of his bronze Hall of Fame plaque.  Not surprisingly, many fellow Hall of Fame members came by to pay homage and take pictures with the man who had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record. I piggy-backed one such photo op with my camera (see below).

Standing (L-R): Billy Williams and Andre Dawson; Sitting (L-R): Mrs. Billye Aaron, Hank, and Dave Winfield. (Photo by Kevin Keating)

And when I approached the slugger with my photo request, Hank said, “Sure.” I was a man now, and Hank obliged me just as he had when I made the same solicitation as a boy, 45 years before.

I was only fourteen then when I chased him for an autograph (and the below photo) on a sidewalk in Chicago.

Kevin Keating at age 14 with baseball great Hank Aaron. (Photo: Kevin Keating Collection)

And here is the story of that first photo and its memorable day (from Waiting for a Sign, Volume One)….

By opening day of the 1973 season, Hank Aaron had slugged 673 home runs.  He needed just 41 to tie and 42 to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714, to many fans the most revered of all professional sports records.  Even though Aaron had just turned thirty-nine (February 2), most people had no doubt that he would surpass Ruth.  The question was not so much “if,” but “when.”

Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s record captured the country’s attention and mine, too, in a national countdown to 714. The public anticipation and excitement generated by his pursuit of the legendary record grew more and more exciting as every four-bagger nudged him one long ball closer to Ruth.

That’s why I was determined to witness history firsthand, to be in the stands–if not for No. 714, at least to see him hit one of his record-chasing homers, perhaps. And when he and the Braves arrived in Chicago in ’73 to play a three-game set against the Cubs on August 14, 15, and 16, he had already reached 28 for the season. It was the Braves’ final of two trips to Chicago that year.

With just forty games left to play, Hank Aaron’s career home run number stood at 701.  He needed only 13 more to tie Ruth and 14 to eclipse him.  At his current pace, and if he played all the remaining games, he would add another 10 before year’s end.  If he got “hot” (or even slightly warm), he could break the record.  I knew that once this August series was finished, the Braves wouldn’t be back to Chicago until sometime in 1974. Barring strange circumstances, Aaron would already be the all-time home run king before he returned to Wrigley Field.  If I were going to see him hit one on his way to the record, this series would be my last chance.

I was 14, ready to enter high school and the starting shortstop that summer on a local team.  Our games were always scheduled on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and would keep me away from Wrigley Field those days.  But I could make the final game of the Cubs-Braves series on Thursday, so I planned for it.

Of course, these plans included a pregame stop at the Executive House Hotel, where his team stayed and where I hoped to meet and get the autograph of the future all-time home run champ. I always tried to bring a friend with me when I went to the “autograph” hotel and/or a game, and this time was no exception.  My regular autograph mates were unavailable, so I asked my good friend Dan Fullington, who agreed to go along.

Dan was a year younger and lived nearby.  We did a lot of things together, but this was the first of only a couple times he ever went to the hotel or to a game with me.  But he picked a memorable day!  Although the Braves finished that year next to last among six contenders in the National League’s Western Division (final record 76-85), the team was loaded with players whose autographs I wanted.

Besides Aaron, there was the manager and sure future Hall of Famer Ed Mathews, who himself had hit 512 home runs—many of which he hit with the Braves as Hank Aaron’s teammate. Other stars included another future Hall of Famer, Phil Niekro, and his brother, Joe, along with Carl Morton (1970 NL Rookie of the Year), Dusty Baker, Darrell Evans, and Davey Johnson.

Aaron, Evans, and Johnson were all in the thick of the home run race.  Together, they would set a major-league record that year by becoming the first three teammates ever to hit at least 40 homers each in a season.  Only one person that year would outpace the three Braves sluggers, and that was the Pittsburgh Pirates great and future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who finished the year with a league high of 44.

I had many goals that day, including getting autographs from all the sluggers I mentioned above, and especially one from “Hammerin’ Hank,” as Aaron was aptly nicknamed. Shaking his hand and maybe even seeing him hit a home run during the game were also on my ambitious wish list.

To add to my challenges, this was the first time I had ever “chased” the Braves, so I really had no idea what to expect from them regarding their signing habits.  And that included Hank Aaron. What I did know was that the national scrutiny on Aaron would likely not work in our favor.  It was no secret that the press and fans mobbed him everywhere he went, and I was now joining those ranks, if even for a moment.

But in the same way fishermen hit the water with hopes of “catching the big one,” I remained optimistic as we set out that day.  Dan and I rode on an early train to the city to make sure we took up our posts in front of the hotel well in advance of normal player flow.  We didn’t want to take a chance that Aaron could slip out before we were there to greet him.  I brought the usual items for signing:  books, magazine photos, a baseball, and Topps cards, including several of Hank.

Not being a serious autograph collector, Dan was more on board for the day’s experience and possessed nothing to get signed. So I suggested he take along the universal friend of all autograph collectors: a stack of index cards.  The paper product would be fine for everyone but Aaron.  If we were to be lucky enough to get Hank to sign for us, I couldn’t let Dan waste an Aaron autograph on an index card, so I gave him my favorite of the Aaron Topps cards—the 1969 issue #100, with one catch: I wanted the card back if it remained unsigned.  But if Dan got it signed, the card was his.

When Dan and I reached the Executive House, no chasers were there, but that auspicious beginning didn’t surprise me.  We were early, and I fully expected a large contingent to soon materialize, especially with Aaron in town.  But no.  We remained the only two autograph seekers at 71 East Wacker Drive waiting on the sidewalk that day.

One other person did soon arrive to take up a position alongside us, but not to get autographs.  He had a camera and but one intention:  to have a photo taken of himself with Hank Aaron. I have long since forgotten his name, so I’ll just refer to him as “camera-guy.”

He was about our age, a year or two older maybe, and the three of us struck up a friendly conversation as we waited for some action.  This was long before the advent of high-tech, digital, and video cameras; in fact, cameras of any kind were luxury items in those days.  The only camera in our family was my father’s, but it was a fancy one and too complicated for me to operate, even if he had trusted it to me (which he didn’t).  So I had never thought about getting my photo with ballplayers, much less with Hank Aaron.

Though maybe, if we helped camera-guy by taking his photo, he would take one of each of us and then mail them to us.  Even before I could ask him, he offered to do exactly that, if Mr. Aaron would pose for all of us and only after camera-guy’s picture was taken. (Which I could understand!)

All this sounded great, and Dan and I were excited at the thought of having our photos taken with the Braves’ superstar.  But before it could happen, we had to overcome two big ifs: if we met Hank Aaron, and if he would pose with us. We met this challenge quickly when the first player we saw that day was none other than the man himself.

Good thing we were there early; no sooner had camera-guy showed us how to operate his camera than the main act stepped through the revolving door.  This was the only time we would see him until we watched him later in the game. Our only chance.

Dan and I called to him first, “Mr. Aaron, would you please sign an autograph for us?”  Instinctively, we both echoed the request as this baseball legend made his way to a waiting car that had just pulled up in what appeared to have been a well-planned and synchronized meeting.

Without saying a word, he stopped and took the pen from my hand as Dan, holding out the Topps card, and camera-guy both looked on. I had many items I wanted Aaron to sign, but I placed only my top two choices in front of him:  an 8 x 10 color magazine photo resting on top of a large-format, hardcover book opened to a 2-page reproduction of a LeRoy Neiman rendition of the superstar.

As he scratched his name on the photo, I quietly asked, “Mr. Aaron, would you please also sign the book?” I finished my question at the precise moment he completed penning his name to the photo, and he silently signaled that he would by continuing to hold my pen as I seamlessly slid the photo away to reveal the Neiman image.  I thanked him as he signed my second piece.

This is the photo Hank signed for me. (Photo: Kevin Keating)

In one motion, he handed my pen back with one hand and took Dan’s pen and card with his other.  He was signing for Dan when camera-guy made his request: “Mr. Aaron, when you’re done signing autographs, would you mind posing for a photograph with me?”  Aaron looked up only after handing Dan the signed card and pen.  “OK, where do you want me to stand?  Is right here OK?”

I had already placed my signed items at our post a few feet away and returned with free hands just in time to grab the camera as camera-guy posed with the great slugger.  As soon as the camera clicked, Aaron made a clean break and was in full stride to the nearby car.  “Mr. Aaron,” I said, as I jogged toward him, handing off the camera to camera-guy, “would you mind taking a moment to pose for two more photos, one with me and another with my friend?”

“Yes,—me too, please, Mr. Aaron,” Dan chimed in from my side.

Rather than ignore us or directly decline us, as he certainly could have, Aaron stopped in his tracks and turned to us.  He looked a bit annoyed, but no one could fault him for that while we persisted in halting his rush to the waiting car only a few feet away.  He spoke to Dan and me for the first time, “OK, fellas, but let’s make this quick—I’ve got to go.”

With that, camera-guy snapped first one of me and then one of Dan with the great ballplayer, who patiently indulged us.  As I stood next to him, he even put his arm around me.  I returned the gesture just as camera-guy snapped the photo of me, expressionless, with the baseball legend.  I was in shock.  I shook Aaron’s hand and thanked him before switching positions with Dan.

Having finally satisfied all requests, “Hammerin’ Hank” completed his journey to the car.  But before sealing himself inside, he graciously acknowledged both our repeated thanks and the very last thing we said to him:  “Good luck today, Mr. Aaron.  We’ll be at the game, and we hope to see you hit another homer!”

“Thanks, fellas,” he responded. The door closed and he waved to us as the car pulled off.  We couldn’t believe it!  Not only had this baseball icon stopped to sign for us, he had also taken the time to snap a photo with us, thanks to the serendipitous appearance of the camera-guy.  His objective complete, he quickly left.

But first he had asked for my address and promised to send both photos once they were developed.  Dan and I might have worried then about whether we’d ever see them, but we didn’t have time to think about it.  We were very, very busy during the next couple of hours that morning.  And by the time the team bus departed, we had collected a total of twenty-five Braves players, coaches, and its manager, including all of my high-priority targets!

Our hotel experience that one day I will never forget: besides meeting Hank Aaron, baseball’s then future home run king, no one had refused us! But–almost unbelievably–things got even better later that day at Wrigley Field.

Like many, if not all, of the 17,682 fans1 in attendance that day, we hoped to see Aaron make more history and close the gap to 714. But as the game progressed, that seemed less and less likely. Cubs’ starter Milt Pappas had pitched six innings of shutout ball, and the Braves had done no better against Bob Locker who had relieved Pappas and held the Braves in check in the seventh.

So far, Aaron was one for three with a single.  He was due up in the top of the eighth inning, and it would most likely be his last at bat in the series. After seven innings, the Cubs were on top in a pitching duel, 2-0. But in the eighth, the Braves went on the warpath!

Darrell Evans began the inning with a routine groundout to first base.  The crowd then collectively moved to the edge of their seats to watch Aaron take his turn against Locker.  He drew a walk, and it seemed certain that he would leave town with the same number of home runs he had brought with him.  But the baseball gods that day had different plans.

Dusty Baker also walked, and Dave Johnson popped up.

Out No. 2.

Then all hell broke loose.

Pinch-hitting for Marty Perez, Frank Tepedino doubled in both Aaron and Baker to tie the game at 2-2.

Pinch-hitting for Paul Casanova, Sonny Jackson singled in Tepedino to put the Braves on top, 3-2.

Pinch-hitting for Joe Niekro, Dick Dietz singled sharply to center, moving Jackson to second.

Jack Aker came in from the Cubs bullpen to relieve Bob Locker. Facing Aker, leadoff hitter Ralph Garr cleared the bases with a double, giving the Braves a 5-2 lead, and took third on a cutoff error by Cubs’ shortstop, Dave Rosello.

Mike Lum singled in Garr, making the score 6-2 and bringing up Darrell Evans for the second time in the inning. This put Aaron in the on-deck circle!

Evans drew a walk off Aker, moving Lum to second.

Unbelievable!  Hank Aaron advanced to the plate one more time!

In this, his final at bat in the series and his last at Wrigley Field as the game’s number two all-time home run hitter, Aaron launched Jack Aker’s offering over the left field fence.  The ball traveled far out of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and onto West Waveland Avenue.

It seemed almost surreal, but Dan and I got to see Hank Aaron hit his 702nd home run, a three-run blast to give the Braves a 9-2 lead.  I recorded the event in my scorecard.

The final score was 10-2. And Aaron did get hot after that game. He hit 11 more home runs before season’s end to finish the year at 40, putting him just one shy of Babe Ruth’s record of 714.  He would have to wait until opening day the following year to tie Ruth. When next season came around, he was ready.

On opening day in Cincinnati and in his very first official at bat in 1974, Aaron hit a three-run blast against Jack Billingham and the  Reds.  Three games later he made history when he went deep on an Al Downing fastball against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Braves home opener.  The ball cleared the fence and landed in the Braves’ bullpen, smack into the glove of relief pitcher Tom House who caught it on the fly.

When Aaron retired, he had hit a grand total of 755 home runs, and one of them, No. 702, I will never forget!  Nor will I ever forget meeting him earlier that day with my childhood friend, Dan Fullington.

On the train-ride home that evening, Dan and I debated the likelihood that we would ever see those photos taken of us with Hank Aaron.  Though we both concluded it was doubtful, we also agreed that it didn’t really matter.  We had enjoyed a wonderfully successful day.  Among other things, we had met the future home run king, gotten his autograph, and, to top off the day, we watched him hit a home run!  And he had posed for photos with us, with or without the actual images to support our claims.

As we recounted the day’s incredible events, Dan handed me the Aaron-signed Topps card and said, “Here, Keats [my nickname]. I want you to have this—it means more to you than it ever will to me.”

I tried to refuse, but Dan was insistent, assuring me that he had really just gone to the hotel and game for the experience, which had been great, but not really for autographs.  He continued by saying that he would always have the memories of what had happened that day, and that was plenty for him. And he really did want me to have the precious card.

This is the card.

 

I finally accepted his generous gift.  A couple of weeks later I was stunned when an envelope arrived in our mail from camera-guy! I was thrilled to find two photos in it, Hank Aaron with Dan and the other with me.

Included was a note that simply said something like “Here are the photos—hope you like them.”

Dan shared my joy when I gave him his photo, and I still cherish that small, grainy color image that shows me with the future home run king and the slugger’s arm around me, taken on the very day he moved closer to history with No. 702.

As for Dan, he and I remained good friends until I left the area after high school; I had joined the Army to go to West Point.  One sad day at school there, I received a letter from another high school buddy who told me that Dan Fullington had been killed while riding his motorcycle. I would never have the pleasure of enjoying our friendship as adults—Danny was only nineteen.

I still have the two Aaron autographs I got that day, too, and that 1969 Topps card Danny gave to me on our train ride home together.  And I’ll always have those great memories of an unforgettable day, mainly courtesy of Hank Aaron, a day made even more memorable and special because I shared it with my good friend Danny, a great guy whose life was much too short.

 Hank Aaron’s greatness and legacy….

Warren Spahn, baseball’s winningest pitcher since 1930 (Spahn won 363, many as Hank’s teammate), told me that Hank Aaron’s wrists were so quick, it looked like “he hit pitches out of the catchers’ mitts;” he could wait that long before starting his swing.  He also said that when Aaron joined the Braves in 1954, he was a natural line-drive hitter whose future greatness was evident even then.

Warren thought young Aaron’s ability and line-drive swing gave him the potential to be a .400 hitter.  But the Braves wanted Hank to hit more home runs, so their coaches worked with him to modify his swing slightly to give the ball more lift at impact than his line-drive swing produced.  It worked.

Aaron never hit .400, but he did hit more home runs than anyone before him, and managed to collect 3771 hits along the way.  And though Aaron will forever be remembered as the man who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, the great irony of his achievement is that it often overshadows his other skills on the diamond. His consistency in every facet of play was nothing short of superb, ranking him among baseball’s all-time best all-around players.

Besides home runs, he still holds the mark for career extra-base hits (1477), total bases (6856), and RBIs (2297).  He was also an excellent base runner, proven by his theft of 240 bases out of 313 attempts—a success rate of more than three to one.  And his three consecutive Gold Glove awards at his position (1958-1960) are also a testament to his rarely attributed and exceptional defensive skills.

Despite all of his greatness, Hank’s most enduring byline will not just be the breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run record, but for doing so with dignity and grace amid the many racial epithets he endured and death threats he received on his march to 715. Everyone I knew then was rooting for Hank Aaron to break Babe Ruth’s home run record as was most of the country. In fact, when I saw him hit number 702 in Chicago he received a standing ovation from the crowd at Wrigley Field. Still, the threats on his life were real; but they didn’t stop Hammerin’ Hank from achieving his destiny!  And while it saddens me to know of the hatred he endured from some, I am happy that he lived to be 86, long enough—I hope—to enjoy fully the recognition he forever deserves and to know and experience the admiration and love of a nation.

On August 7, 2007 Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run to surpass Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run king.  Bonds finished his career at the end of the 2007 season with 762, still the record. However, because of alleged steroid use, Bonds is still not in the Hall of Fame.

This week the Baseball Writers Association (BBWA) of America released its voting results for the Hall of Fame’s 2021 class.  And no one, including Barry Bonds (on his ninth ballot), received the 75-percent threshold necessary for induction.

I predict that Bonds will one day enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his failure to do so to date remains, at least in part, a lasting legacy to the greater baseball community’s respect for and admiration of its preceding home run king, Hank Aaron.  RIP.

Kevin Keating is a lifetime baseball fan and autograph collector who acquired more than 10,000 baseball signatures before he graduated high school (including duplicates).

 

 

He is the author of two books, The Negro Leagues Autograph Guide, and Waiting for a Sign, Volume One-with Volume Two scheduled for release later this year (his books are available on Amazon).  He currently works as the Principal Autograph Authenticator for Professional Sport Collectors (PSA), a subsidiary of Collectors Universe (Nasdaq: CLCT).

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