Please hold for a call from Mr. Aaron …

Hank Aaron laughs during a pregame ceremony to recognize the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron's historic 715th home run before the season opener Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)
Caption
Hank Aaron laughs during a pregame ceremony to recognize the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron's historic 715th home run before the season opener Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

When I was a rookie Braves beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in summer 1999, I got a call in my hotel room one night on the road with the team. It was Hank Aaron’s secretary, Susan Bailey, asking to patch a call through from Mr. Aaron.

Mr. Aaron — in my 17 years at the AJC, I never could bring myself to call him anything but — was touring Major League ballparks that summer, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his record-breaking 715th home run.

“Why on earth was he calling me?” was my first and only thought.

My heart was still pounding in my ears, when I heard his familiar Alabama drawl come on the line. We said our hellos and made some small talk about the team, and then he got to the point: He had been getting a lot of questions from reporters in major league cities about who he thought the best living ballplayer was. (Joe DiMaggio had just died in March. Given that DiMaggio was once voted the “Greatest Living Ballplayer” and used to insist on being introduced that way, the title had apparently been vacated.) Mr. Aaron wanted to know my thoughts on how he should answer.

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It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was a 29-year-old reporter, who’d really only covered the Braves for parts of two seasons with the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph in 1995 and 1996. Not only was I trying to prove myself in a bigger market, I was also trying to prove myself as the Braves’ first female full-time beat writer. It was something I didn’t talk about a whole lot, but something that served as a constant motivator for me.

I’d interviewed Mr. Aaron maybe a few times to that point, but he still felt more like the lead character in the “I Had a Hammer” biography I had read than somebody who’d be calling me on the phone.

None of that seemed to matter to Mr. Aaron, though. He just waited quietly and earnestly for my answer. The good part was the answer was easy. I told him he should absolutely make the case for himself.

We talked about the other conceivable choices: Ted Williams, Willie Mays and his good friend Stan Musial, too. I made the case for Aaron over each of the three, while emphasizing his consistency, his longevity, and his ability to hit for both average and power while playing Gold Glove caliber defense in right field. I didn’t have any statistics in front of me at the time, but I knew enough to know Aaron was not only baseball’s all-time leader in home runs, but extra-base hits, total bases and runs batted in, three more significant notches in his belt.

The way I remember it (my most rookie mistake was not writing anything down after we got off the phone) we spent the most time talking about Williams. That might have been because Aaron had visits coming up to cities like New York and Boston, where not only was the press more influential but Williams was king. One argument I pointed to that Aaron had over Williams was the three seasons Williams lost during the prime of his career to military service in World War II. But really, I figured, Aaron could just let his numbers talk for him.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Caption
Chipper Jones shares story of teammates and opponents' first reaction to meeting Braves great Henry Aaron, who died at the age of 86.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Using statistics to make points was a good way to stay out of trouble; it worked for me as a sportswriter. That said, I also knew it was a lot easier for me to spout off Hank Aaron’s statistics than for him to do it, so I tried to suggest some phrases he could use to introduce his thoughts or that might feel more natural for him to say, like “You could make the case that” or “In my opinion, you could look at ...” And of course, a great place to start would always be, “Ted Williams was an unbelievable ballplayer. With all due respect …”

I must have come up with enough to satisfy him because after maybe 10 or 15 minutes, we said our goodbyes. I immediately picked the phone back up and called my father. He was one of maybe two or three people I shared that story with. Building trust with players — both current and former — was really important to me, and I wasn’t about to spoil the trust Aaron had shown me that night. But I had to tell Dad.

My dad died a little less than a year before Hank Aaron did. I have thought a lot about both of them, and about my conversation with Mr. Aaron, in the days since he passed away. Looking back at it now, I’ll cherish that call as such a compliment, that he sought my input, regardless of my experience, my gender, or my standing.

I had a feeling when I was on the phone with him that night, that Aaron’s wife, Billye, had something to do with the respect he was showing me. She was a pioneer in her own right as the first African-American woman in the Southeast to host a TV talk show. He was showing his respect for her by doing the same for me.

Mostly I think of that call as a prime example of Hank Aaron’s humility, even in an age when Major League egos were as outsized as the contracts and when public relations firms would have clamored over each other for the chance to answer Aaron’s question. But the giant of the game never lost sight of what it was like to be the kid on his way up, or the outsider looking in, and he never took himself to be the untouchable legend the rest of us made him out to be. And that is a nicer legacy than any statistic can measure.

Carroll Rogers Walton is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She worked a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997-2014, covering the Braves as the lead beat writer from 1999-2001 and also as the Braves backup beat writer from 2007-2014. She is co-author of Ballplayer, the biography of Chipper Jones.

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