WHEN I first heard of Hank Aaron’s passing last weekend, my first thought turned to where I was the moment he hit No. 715. Every baseball fan over the age of, say, 55, remembers that night like it was yesterday.
The second thought was a question. Did Aaron ever make it to the celebrated Union Leader Fund Inc. Baseball Dinner?
The day was Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1958. New Hampshire Sunday News Sports Editor Leo E. Cloutier secured commitments from not only Aaron, but two other future Hall of Famers in Stan Musial and Al Kaline, to attend the annual mid-winter baseball gala at the State Armory in Manchester.
But wait, there were more. Lew Burdette, who three months earlier joined Aaron in leading the Milwaukee Braves to the 1957 World Series title, over the Yankees, was in attendance. (More on Burdette later.). Bob Turley, the winning pitcher in Game 6 for the Yanks, made it. too.
The guest list continued. Roy Sievers, Jimmy Piersall, Nashua’s Birdie Tebbetts, Joe Garagiola and Johnny Pesky joined the fun. Frank Malzone couldn’t make it, though, blaming dicey road conditions around his home in Oneonta, N.Y.
Oh, and Ty Cobb made it, too. The Ty Cobb who some think may have been the best player of all time. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936.
Yeah, that Ty Cobb.
“We used every mode of transportation but dogsled,” said the Georgia Peach after arriving in frigid and snowy Manchester from ... Georgia.
Attendance was estimated at 2,500, breaking some sort of national record for winter baseball dinners.
Judging by the old clips, Aaron, nearly 24 years old, didn’t say much — at least publicly — at the dinner. Months earlier, he let his bat do the talking, winning the National League MVP in his fourth season, then batting .393 with three homers in the Series. That night in Manchester, Aaron said he was honored to be there, then predicted the Braves would repeat in 1958.
Aaron’s prediction was half right. The Braves did win the NL pennant again, but fell to those hated Yanks (and Turley) in Game 7 of the Series.
It’s a good bet Aaron was just as gracious in that defeat as he was the previous year in victory. His wrists were powerful, for sure, but his courage, strength and kindness were said to be just as powerful.
“He was more than a baseball player,” remembers Epping’s Bob Benoit, 73, who helped Cloutier organize later baseball dinners and met Aaron at future Baseball Hall of Fame inductions. “He was second to Jackie Robinson in changing the culture in baseball.”
Benoit did not attend the dinner in ’58. He was only 11. So, is there anyone out there who did attend and remembers Aaron? If so, please feel free to contact me here at 668-4321, extension 333. I would love to hear more about the man.
As promised, here’s more about Burdette’s 1957 World Series: He won all three of his starts, going the distance in all three, including seven-hit shutouts in Game 5 (1-0) and Game 7 (5-0). He was the Series MVP. Duh.
Burdette finished his career with 203 victories. He’s not in the Hall of Fame.
So where was I on April 8, 1974, when Aaron hit his 715th? Nowhere special, just in the family room watching the TV.
Oh, but I was somewhere special when Aaron, now playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, hit his only Fenway Park homer more than a year later. It was a Sunday, Sept. 14, 1975, with the Red Sox well on their way to the A.L. East crown. I was sitting in that little slice of heaven, grandstand Section 33, about 20 feet from where it landed in the screen. (Yes, kids, there used to be a boring old metal screen atop the wall where the Green Monster seats are now.)
Aaron’s homer that day was No. 745, his last of the season. His victim that day was lefty Bill Lee. The Spaceman threw some kind of breaking pitch and Aaron didn’t miss it, giving the Brew Crew a 5-1 lead.
The Sox came back to win, 8-6, so it was a great day all around.
By contrast, I have no memory of where I was when Barry Bonds hit his 756th homer.
We lost a friend and former colleague the other day with the passing of Dave Johnson, who was 72. The public didn’t know Dave, but you knew Dave’s exceptional work as the longtime Sunday News sports editor.
Dave was a great journalist who helped to give casual sports readers a product worth its considerable weight and sports junkies the scores they craved.
A lasting memory will always be Dave updating a page at the 11th hour to include West Coast results for the final edition. The word “diligent” didn’t begin to describe him.
Vin Sylvia, our former deputy managing editor for news and sports, worked closely with Dave and expressed these thoughts.
“I’m probably the 100th person to say this, but Dave was the proverbial gentle giant. He could have broken me in two if he’d chosen — and I’m sure I gave him just cause on multiple occasions during the 20 or so years we worked together — but he had a knack for recognizing the good in people and drawing that out. Dave was highly intelligent and very well-informed about a vast array of subjects, but what stood out most about him was his empathy. As big as he was, he was always able to put himself in someone else’s shoes.”
Our deepest sympathies go out to Dave’s family, including his wife, Leslie.
We leave you with an interesting note from last Tuesday’s New York Times. According to the Times, one of the most popular sports for gambling these days is Russian table tennis.
It seems that when the pandemic first hit and games were hard to find, Americans dollars turned to one of the few sports still kicking: semipro Ping-Pong. Months later, the Russian Liga Pro is still popular with the gambling populace.
Of course, there’s a New Hampshire angle to just about everything, and the Times found Nashua’s Nick Webster to detail how he tracks players and makes his picks. Webster even has a favorite player, someone named Aleksey Lobanov.
“All of a sudden, I find myself rooting for Lobanov, I guy who I’d never heard of in my life, and now he’s like one of my favorite athletes,” Webster told the Times. “It’s too bad I can’t go into a shop and get a Lobanov jersey.”