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Remembering Hank Aaron beyond the home run record: One special night in 1963

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/22/2021 By Bruce Jenkins
Hawk Taylor et al. in uniform posing for a photo: FILE - In this Sept. 23, 1957, file photo, Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron is carried from the baseball field by teammates after they won the National League pennant with a 4-2 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals, in Milwaukee. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/File) © Associated Press

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 1957, file photo, Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron is carried from the baseball field by teammates after they won the National League pennant with a 4-2 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals, in Milwaukee. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/File)

We were baseball-mad kids in Southern California, the Dodgers still a pretty fresh look in town, and it wasn’t long before we realized that Willie Mays was the best player alive. But there was this man in right field for the Milwaukee Braves, Hank Aaron, who had his own approach to the game. Right around the time Dodger Stadium opened, in 1962, we decided Hank was our man.

So many thoughts rushed into memory Friday when it was learned that Aaron had died, at 86. Like Mays, the prime-time Aaron made all the plays and performed every aspect of the game to perfection. He was always among the home-run leaders, leading the National League a couple of times, but we never thought of him that way. His game was measured and exact, displaying little flair but consistently superior. Not once did we imagine him a threat to Babe Ruth’s career home-run record, because it just wasn’t about that.

It was about the wrists. The searing doubles up the alley. The fact that Aaron hit .355 one year, striking out just 54 times in 693 plate appearances. He didn’t put any “launch angle” thinking into his swing, preferring it to be level. Lethally so, and if the ball happened to leave the ballpark, all the better. Just as he could take a nasty Don Drysdale slider and hammer it into right-center, he could turn on Sandy Koufax’s fastball (on the good days, anyway) and hit a dead-pull rocket.

Anyone with even a passing baseball fancy appreciated Aaron, but for my best friend, Jack Pritchett, and me, he became an obsession. “See what Hank did?” That’s how we greeted each other on a summer’s morning after perusing the box scores. We were furious when the Braves moved to Atlanta in ’66, because there was something so pure about Aaron’s No. 44 Milwaukee uniform. And for several years, in the company of schoolmates, we felt that serious recognition of the man’s greatness was our little secret.

We never lost our fascination with one of the five greatest right-handed hitters of all time, but when it became apparent he would chase Ruth’s mark, we backed off the adulation. Hell, now everybody loved him. And we feared people would lose sight of Aaron, the complete ballplayer, the way he was best known in the All-Star company of Mays, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson.

Before my father passed away in 1984, I thanked him for giving me an early look at Aaron. We lived many miles from the L.A. Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first home in Southern California. It was a trek, and my dad tended to make it worthwhile with tickets to a doubleheader — so often with the Braves in town. I was 10 years old that first season, 1958, and I learned what Aaron had just accomplished: winning the 1957 Most Valuable Player award and leading the Braves to a stunning World Series victory over the mighty New York Yankees.

My dad’s message went something like, “Watch this guy. He’s not real flashy, but man, can he play.”

There’s another memory, as well, rich in its detail. One night around ’63, Jack Pritchett and I went out to Dodger Stadium to watch Hank. We got right down to the first row of the field-level seats near the Braves’ dugout before the game, and Aaron was playing pepper with three or four Braves. You don’t see pepper games in the ballparks these days, but it was a delightful bat-control exercise: one player tapping underhand deliveries from close range, with the idea of targeting each teammate in order. It got to be great fun when the “fielders” played tricks with the ball before sending it back.

After a while, we wondered if Hank could sense our presence. He did steal a quick glance at one point. And then, when the pepper game was over, he turned his hips ever so slightly and guided one toward us — a gentle little floater, descending like a dandelion. Straight at Jack. He couldn’t have dropped it in a million years. Cradling the precious gift, he looked up in amazement but Aaron was gone, a heartwarming idea executed to perfection.

The two of us cherished that baseball for maybe a month or so, but then, knuckleheads that we were, we began playing with it. In the street, and on fields littered with lumps and pebbles. It got all crusty and worn, and then it just disappeared from our lives. Surely an autograph would have lasted longer, but as treasures go, it couldn’t compare to a simple flick of the wrist. The night Hank Aaron let us into his game.

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: bjenkins@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Bruce_Jenkins1

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