Former Mets discuss Hank Aaron's legacy: 'As good a player as he was, he was a hundred times better person'

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Anthony McCarron
·6 min read
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Hank Aaron smiling
Hank Aaron smiling

From afar, Hank Aaron was the opponent that Ron Swoboda always eyed during batting practice. Each flick of Aaron’s legendary wrists was a masterclass of hitting grace and power and Swoboda, the former Met, would watch, stricken with diamond envy.

“You wished like hell it was your swing,” Swoboda said. “And you knew you weren’t close to anything like this.”

Who was? On Friday, Swoboda was sharing memories about Aaron, the Hall of Famer who died at age 86. Swoboda recounted how The Hammer was a daunting obstacle to the Mets’ Miracle dreams in the 1969 playoffs and how struck he was by Aaron’s dignified aura when the two were briefly teammates with the Braves in the spring of 1974 and Aaron was sitting on 713 home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth’s then all-time record.

Aaron, who slugged 755 home runs in his career — even if you took each one away, he’d still have more than 3,000 lifetime hits — is the 10th inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame to die since April. “An awful run,” Swoboda said. “It rattles you.”

For Cleon Jones, losing Aaron is doubly poignant, since it happened on the 20th anniversary of the death of Tommie Agee. “This is an especially sad day for me,” Jones said in statement. Jones and Agee, teammates on the 1969 Mets, shared a hometown with Aaron. All three were born in Mobile, Ala.

“Hank was such a humble man,” Jones said. “As good a player as he was, he was a hundred times better person. To me, he was the best right fielder in the history of the game. If you had to pick an all-time MLB outfield, it would be Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Hank.

“There was so much outside pressure on him when he broke the Ruth record. He knew there were so many people who didn’t want him to get to 715.”

Briefly, Swoboda had a clubhouse seat for Aaron’s chase. He signed a free-agent deal with the Braves on Jan. 3, 1974 and went to spring training. As soon as he had been around a few days, Swoboda wanted to make the team even more than he had when he signed.

“I got to spend some time with him, hang around him and see how he carried himself every day, how he got ready,” Swoboda said. “Getting a peek at that, I really wanted to make that team. The guy reeked of dignity.”

Aaron was under tremendous scrutiny at the time, after finishing the 1973 season one shy of what was probably the most famous number in sports. He was receiving racist hate mail, including death threats, because of his pursuit of Ruth’s record. With the world watching and all that vileness roiling around him, Aaron persevered.

“You heard in the spring about all these horrible, horrible, ignorant reactions from people who didn’t seem to think he was worthy of breaking Babe Ruth’s record,” Swoboda recalled. “He hit 713 home runs, but you’re not qualified? Excuse me, but that’s just ignorant. Maybe what they needed was to spend a little time up close and personal with this guy, to see how he was the quiet in the midst of this hurricane of resentment around him.

“We talked about the whole thing of how someone could take such an ugly and negative position on what was the excellence of a great career,” Swoboda added. “It was astounding to him.”

Swoboda did not get to stick around for Aaron’s march to the record. “I had a horrible spring,” he said. He was released in March.

But Swoboda was watching Braves-Dodgers on television on April 8, when Aaron hit No. 715 off former Yankee Al Downing. “That got me,” Swoboda said. “That choked me up. The magnificence, I suppose.”

All these years later, Aaron’s excellence remains dazzling. For instance, he still is the all-time leader in total bases, 722 more than No. 2 Stan Musial.

“Aaron, he made hitting look so simple and so relaxed and so natural,” Swoboda said. “It was incredible. It wasn’t that easy. Great musicians and great dancers, who make something extremely difficult, look so effortless. That’s what it was.”

Swoboda, living on Long Island at the time, got a call from CBS, asking him to put together a video piece on his reaction to Aaron making history, since he had been at spring training with Aaron. That helped lead to a job at WCBS as their sports anchor at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., a gig he held for more than four years. Later, Swoboda started a career doing color commentary on Minor League Baseball that lasted more than 20 years.

“That got me on the tube,” Swoboda said. “Being close, in a sense, to Hank Aaron kind of triggered my television career.”

In ‘69, Aaron had what Swoboda described as a “gonzo” series against the Mets in the first-ever National League Championship Series. Aaron had clobbered the Mets all year (1.231 OPS, five homers in 12 games) and continued the same in the playoffs.

“He banged a few,” Swoboda added. Aaron homered three times — once in each game, taking Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry deep — and batted .357 with seven RBI. The Miracle Mets were led by their pitching, but the Braves scored 15 runs in three games.

Good thing the Mets scored 27 and swept Atlanta. “Our left-handed platoon had to outhit the Braves. How about that?” Swoboda said. “With Aaron and Rico Carty and (Orlando) Cepeda there.

Added Jones: “After we beat the Braves in the 1969 playoffs, Hank met a scout from the Orioles and the scout said to him, we shouldn’t have that much trouble with the Mets. Hank told him to beware and that if they weren’t on the top of their game, the Mets would win.”

Aaron knew what he was talking about when it came to New York baseball, even if he never played for a New York team. Can you just imagine if he had?

Maybe it’s because he and New York were intertwined in some ways. Aaron, after all, got his first shot in the Majors after Bobby Thomson broke his ankle. That was three years after Thomson hit perhaps the most famous homer in New York history — the “Shot Heard Round The World” that lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and into the 1951 World Series.

Aaron took the home run crown from Ruth, the most famous Yankee. And he helped the Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series for his only championship. Aaron, by the way, led all regulars with a .393 average in the Series and also hit three homers.

Those Braves were the only team from outside New York to win the World Series in the 1950s. The Yankees, Dodgers and Giants won all the others.

He even let a young Tom Seaver know that the baseball world was already aware of his prodigious talent.

“Kid,” Aaron famously said to Seaver at the 1967 MLB All-Star Game, “I know who you are and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.”