Even as the pursuit of the record consumed the sports world, Aaron prioritized winning games.
“That was his intention every time he hit the ballpark,” Garr said. “He was going to do everything he could to help his team win.”
In the more than four decades since that historic home run, Garr remained in frequent contact with Aaron. He was shocked to learn of Aaron’s death when he got a phone call from one of Aaron’s sons Friday morning. Garr, who lives in Houston, had last spoken with Aaron about a week earlier.
“Hank Aaron was a great baseball player, but he was an even better human being,” Garr, now 75, said. “If you notice, he never did talk bitter toward anybody. Now, I think he had a right to say some things, but he never did talk negative about anybody that ever played before or after him. He has always been a guy who was positive about everything. That’s what he taught (former teammate) Dusty (Baker) and me: If you can’t help somebody, don’t hurt nobody.
“That’s what I love about him: He just made all of us care about one another. He didn’t care what color you were. All of us were human beings, and we should love and respect one another at all times.
“I used to room with Hank Aaron sometimes ... when we’d go on the road in spring training. He did so much for me and Dusty and everybody that we just want the world to know what a wonderful man he was, other than being a remarkable baseball player.”
Former Atlanta Braves outfielder Ralph Garr in the dugout during a spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019 in North Port, Fla. (John Bazemore/AP)
Garr was drafted by the Braves in 1967 and made his MLB debut in September 1968. The speedy outfielder split the 1969 and 1970 seasons between Atlanta and the minor leagues, became a big-league regular in 1971 and played for the Braves through 1975. His .353 batting average, 214 hits and 17 triples led the National League in 1974. Hitting leadoff or second in the batting order, he averaged 29 stolen bases a year from 1971 through 1974 -- and could have had more steals if not for the slugger hitting behind him.
“I came up (nicknamed) as the ‘Road Runner,’ and the Braves advertised that for a while,” Garr said. “But when Mr. Aaron was batting third, you didn’t need (a lot of stolen bases) because he could drive you in from first base pretty good, too.”
The Braves traded Garr in December 1975, and he played five more seasons with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels. He had a career batting average of .306.
Garr is now in his 37th year as a scout for the Braves, a career that started because Aaron invited his friend to visit him at the baseball winter meetings in Houston in 1984. During that visit, Garr expressed interest in working for the Braves. Aaron, then the team’s director of player development, and Paul Snyder, then the director of scouting, hired Garr as a scout and minor-league baserunning coach.
“I have enjoyed every minute of it,” Garr said. “I was able to watch (Tom) Glavine and (John) Smoltz and Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones and all those wonderful ballplayers come up through the Braves organization. It has been a wonderful experience for me and my family.
“It all started because Hank Aaron called me and I went down there to the winter meetings as a friend and ended up being hired.”
From his early playing days through his long scouting career, Garr relied upon Aaron’s advice.
“He wasn’t a guy who made a whole lot of noise and everything and said a whole lot,” Garr said, “but if you ever went to him for advice, he would really take pride in giving you the best advice he thought possible for that situation.”
When they were teammates as players, “he would always tell me that you’ve got to be true to yourself and work on your weakness some, but stay with your strength and work hard every day and do what you know is right and play the game hard,” Garr said. “And (his) No. 1 thing was: Be a good teammate, and respect the game of baseball.”