If you love baseball like I do and grew up during the ’60s and ’70s, you would have known that New York and Chicago were the 2 best cities to live in because both had National and American League teams. Growing up in the “Big Apple”, I had the good fortune to see some the greatest players of the generation. At the original Yankee Stadium, I saw the veteran Whitey Ford outlast a young pitcher named Tommy John (yes, that Tommy John) and Mickey Mantle smash a line drive single after multiple strikeouts.
However, I was a die hard National League fan and always favored the underdog, in this case, the bumbling, stumbling, NY Mets. During the early years , our combined trip to the World’s Fair followed by a game at neighboring Shea Stadium, was always fun though never a win. But soon after my favorite player, Cardinals 3rd Baseman Ken Boyer, was traded to the Mets and a number of talented players were drafted or acquired through lottery (think Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver), the team took off to “amazing” heights!
Taking subway excursions to Shea Stadium, I got to see many great players in action but took particular interest in Hank Aaron as he drew closer to Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714. During the summer of ’73, we went to see the Mets vs the Braves. Aaron did not disappoint, launching 2 towering home runs (#695 and #696)…. for their part, the Mets veteran superstar Willie Mays, could only muster a double. After the game and just for kicks, I sent off letters to a bunch of hall-of-fame credentialed ballplayers seeking an autographed ball. Over the next several months, I received 2 autographed baseballs and one of them was from Hank Aaron! It’s pretty amazing to think that with all of the pressure, scrutiny, prejudice and threats (against him and his family) that he had to endure, he was kind and generous enough to send me a ball. Needless to say, I was super excited when he hit home run number 715 the following spring. It was particularly meaningful to me because the pitcher who threw Hank’s home run ball was Al Downing; just a decade earlier Al had also thrown the grand slam home run pitch to Ken Boyer, that helped to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to World Series victory!
I was saddened to hear of Hank Aaron’s passing this past week. He was one of baseball’s all-time greatest, not only for his natural and gifted athletic prowess, but also because he maintained his poise and graciousness even after his home run title was surpassed during the steroid cheating-era. He will be sorely missed.
Michael Miller, MD is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland USA and located across the street from Babe Ruth’s birthplace.