Hank Aaron considers his home run record almost out of reach
It was barely midday in Los Angeles when a man with a fistful of baseball's most impressive records slid into an upholstered chair in an elegant suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
For the lone writer present (me), it was a rare chance to go one-on-one with Hall of Famer Hank Aaron who not only broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 lifetime home runs, but added another 41 to Ruth's total.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Hank, if you never saw him swing a bat or glide effortlessly under a fly ball, was his almost total lack of theater. He made it all look so easy that most people didn't realize they were watching the makings of a legend.
Ruth's 714 mark lasted 39 years. Aaron thinks his figure will endure even longer and, in fact, may never be broken.
''The reason I say this is because baseball is structured differently today than when I played,'' explained Aaron, who retired as an active player after the 1976 season. ''It used to be that a player's salary was based on what he did the previous season and rarely was anyone offered more than a one-year contract. Of the 23 years I spent in the big leagues, I signed only once for as many as two seasons and most owners would try to cut your salary if you had a bad year.
''But now, at least where the stars are concerned, salaries are predicated on what you might do over the next five or six years,'' said the man who is head of player development for the Atlanta Braves. ''Most owners are willing to pay that kind of money so as not to upset the balance of their teams. Only there are a lot of young guys who can't handle that much security and end up giving you only part of their talent.
''There is no reason for a player to stay around and punish himself physically anymore, because even if he retires early, his pension years are not only big but not that far away. There are also a lot of high-paying jobs outside of baseball available to name players that weren't that plentiful years ago.''
Aaron still remembers his barnstorming days as a kid shortstop with the Indianapolis Clowns, when because he didn't know any better, he courted a possible wrist injury by batting cross-handed and lived on meal money of $2 a day.
''A baseball coach by the name of Dewey Gregg helped me get rid of most of my bad habits with the bat, and a friend of mine on the Clowns solved our eating problems by suggesting that we pool our money,'' Hank said. ''So we'd go out and buy a loaf of bread, some bologna and a big jar of peanut butter, and think we were having a feast.''
Asked about his break-in years in the National League with the old Milwaukee Braves, Aaron replied:
''During my first six or seven years with the Braves I was a bad-ball hitter who probably could have gotten a lot more walks if he'd been smarter. But one thing I did take advantage of was my speed. If the situation was right and a team was playing its infield deep against me, I'd bunt, and I can remember having four or five years when I got myself 10 or 15 extra base hits that way.
''My biggest adjustment as a hitter came in 1954 when I cracked my right ankle sliding into third base against the Cincinnati Reds,'' Hank continued. ''Until then, like most big leaguers, I'd always hit off my back foot.
''But when I first came back, to protect that ankle, I began hitting off my front foot. Initially I didn't notice any difference. But the more I continued to hit that way, the more I realized how much better bat control and bat speed I had than before. Later someone pointed out to me that Willie Mays hit the same way.''
Several National League managers in an attempt to contain Aaron, suddenly began shifting their infields against him, much the way Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau had done against Ted Williams years before in the American League.
''I think the first two managers to shift against me were Gene Mauch and Harry Walker, although I can't remember now who did it first,'' Hank said. ''To tell you the truth, I never looked upon the shift as a problem but as an indication as to how they were going to pitch me, and I'd adjust for it.
''Although you never read about it, a smart hitter can set up a pitcher his first or second time at bat by purposely letting himself look foolish against a certain pitch,'' he continued.
''I used to do this all the time. Then, in the late innings when there were runners on base and the pitcher was tired and not throwing as hard, I'd look for that same pitch and drive it somewhere for extra bases.
''I also kept my bat speed intact when I was older by lowering my hands and bringing them in closer to my body, so that I didn't have to go as far to reach the ball. But for years my hitting style was to imitate Jackie Robinson, who always held his bat high.''
Aaron, who is on a tour of major cities to promote a Cracker Jack-sponsored Oldtimers' Game between American and National League greats in Washington, D.C. on July 19, still looks as though he could play a doubleheader.
While admitting that he became bored with baseball after breaking Ruth's mark with home run No. 715 in 1974, Aaron would never explain why he played two more years with Milwaukee, although he did say it had nothing to do with money.