If the relationship between Henry Aaron and the baseball fans of Milwaukee is "one of the great love affairs of all time," as someone has said, then his return to County Stadium last week as a Milwaukee Brewer was one of the grand reunions.
A club record turnout of 48,160 showed its hankering for Hank by waving pennants and serenading him with a ditty to the tune of Hello, Dolly.
Welcome home, Henry.
Welcome home, Henry.
Ifs so nice to have you back
Where you belong.
The game itself, a 6-2 defeat of Cleveland, showed Aaron to be looking swell and going strong. He did not blast a home run, but he did get his first American League hit, run and RBI.
Anticipation for the day had been building since early November, when Aaron received a three a.m. phone call in Japan announcing the termination of his 21-year career with the Braves of Milwaukee and Atlanta. "I'm going home," he told the caller, Brewer President Bud Selig. "Isn't that great?"
For Aaron, home is where the heart is. He was born in Alabama 41 years ago and spent the last nine years in Atlanta. But Milwaukee is where he got his major league start, enjoyed 12 of his best seasons and hit more than half of his record 733 home runs. When the Braves did not offer him the player-development job he wanted for this season, he followed Babe Ruth's precedent of 40 years ago and went "home." The American League's designated-hitter rule will keep Aaron busy the next two years. After that he can work with young prospects "to perpetuity," as Selig puts it. "There's nothing I'm more proud of than bringing Henry Aaron back to Milwaukee," Selig says. "And that includes giving this town a new franchise five years ago."
Last Thursday, the day before the Brewers' home opener, Aaron returned the compliment at a civic luncheon. "I always thought you people were responsible for my career," he said. "When I made mistakes on the field, you stuck with me. Young players are blessed to be in a city like this."
It was clear and cold on Aaron's homecoming day, and when he arrived at the stadium an autograph seeker stopped him to say, "I haven't been back here since you left."
Once inside the clubhouse Aaron went to his cubicle, where he smoked a cigarette, drank a cup of coffee, sang a snatch of song: "He's got the whole world in His hands."
Among the other ballplayers getting dressed was the Brewers' shortstop, Robin Yount. At 19 he is the youngest player in the majors. Aaron, the oldest, batted .314 the year Yount was born.
"At first I didn't know how to address him," said Yount. "I was kind of scared, but finally I went up to him and said something like, "Hello, Mr. Aaron."
Surveying his new-old surroundings before the game, Aaron said, "There isn't a player on this team who was around the year we won the World Series. But this is a good young team. I just want to help them win. I'll be able to play more this year, maybe 150 games. I could hit 30-35 home runs if I do. With that bat I'm as young as anybody."
Aaron is not as young as he was, however. In 17 spring training games he batted .226 and, during the season's first two games in Boston, he was the only regular to go hitless. "It takes me longer to get prepared," he said. "I know what I can do. In Boston all I saw was slow stuff. I like the high strike zone the American League has, but I don't think the pitchers throw as hard."
On the field the press pressed in. Yes, said Aaron yet again, he was glad to be back. Yes, Milwaukee is a great town. After the crowd had sung its welcome he walked out of the dugout to a standing ovation that lasted almost two minutes. "It was a great feeling, a great feeling," he said later. "Something I'll always remember." From home plate he told the crowd, "I've always felt a special place in my heart for Milwaukee. I hope we can write a new chapter in the hearts of so many wonderful fans."
Nice, but not the kind of drama his bat has provided so often in the past. That opportunity came with his turn at bat in the first inning. Indian Pitcher Jim Perry kept his sliders low, however, and Aaron could do no better than walk.
Two innings later he came up again, with nobody out and men on first and third. He asked Manager Del Crandall if he should try a sacrifice bunt, but Crandall told him to swing away. He did, hitting a ground ball to short which forced the runner at second but allowed the man on third to score. Moments later Aaron was retired himself, when Crandall ordered a steal that was as unsuccessful as it was unexpected.
Before batting in the sixth inning, Aaron went into the clubhouse to warm up, returning in time to see John Briggs lead off with a home run. Then he stirred the crowd with a long foul before ripping a line-drive hit off Third Baseman Buddy Bell's glove. The crowd roared—as if, Aaron noted later, "I'd hit a grand slam."
He grounded out in the seventh, finishing one for three. "I felt good," he concluded, "the best I've felt yet. I just hope all the excitement is over now so I can play baseball."
For Henry Aaron, the player who made Milwaukee famous, that will take a while.