Remembering Hank Aaron and his Canadian connections

One of Hank Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves’ teammates over the years was right-handed pitcher and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ron Piche (Verdun, Que.), shown on the left, with Aaron. Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Hank Aaron, Major League Baseball’s longtime home run king and one of its most important and inspirational ambassadors, passed away on Friday at the age of 86.

The Atlanta Braves shared that Aaron died in his sleep. No cause of death has been provided.

“Hank Aaron’s incredible talent on the baseball field was only matched by his dignity and character, which shone brightly, not only here in Cooperstown, but with every step he took,” said Hall of Fame board chair Jane Forbes-Clark in a statement. “His courage while pursuing the game’s all-time home run record served as an example for millions of people inside and outside of the sports world, who were also aspiring to achieve their greatest dreams. His generosity of spirit and legendary accomplishments will live in Cooperstown forever. On behalf of the Board of Directors and the entire staff of the Hall of Fame, we send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Billye, and his entire family.”

Aaron is the 10th Hall of Fame inductee to pass away within the past nine months. Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton have also died during that period.

Born in 1934 in Mobile, Ala., Aaron toiled in cotton fields during his youth to support his family. Forced to endure racism and segregation, he persevered to become an outstanding athlete and his talents with a bat were evident at an early age. By his junior year in high school, Aaron was competing for the Negro League’s Mobile Black Bears. He followed that up with a successful season with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951 before he was signed by the Boston Braves the following year.

After two seasons in the minors, he made his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and quickly developed into one of the most feared and consistent sluggers in the game. After belting 27 and 26 home runs in 1955 and 1956 respectively, he broke out with a 44-home run campaign in 1957. He also batted .322 that season and topped the National League with 118 runs and 132 RBIs and led the Braves to a World Series title over the New York Yankees.

Over the next decade, Aaron never clubbed less than 30 home runs in a season, but he was more than just a power hitter. The five-tool outfielder earned two National League batting titles, three Gold Glove Awards and stole 20 or more bases six times in a season.

Even in his mid-thirties, Aaron continued to be a power threat, belting 44 home runs in 1969 at age 35 and setting a career high with 47 homers two years later. And until Aaron came along, many thought Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs was unbreakable.

On April 8, 1974, in the face of racism and death threats against him and his family, Aaron belted his 715th career home run to break Ruth’s record.

“I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth,” Aaron once said. “I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”

And remember him we will.

The legendary slugger finished with 755 home runs – a record that stood for more than two decades. He still holds major league marks for most RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856) and finished his career with 3,771 hits (third all-time) and a .305 batting average. For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1982.

Following his career, Aaron stayed in the game in executive roles and as an ambassador with the Braves.

Over his long career in baseball, Aaron developed many Canadian links and connections. Here’s a summary:

-On April 23, 1954, Aaron belted his first major league home run. It was a solo blast off St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Vic Raschi in the sixth inning of the Braves’ 7-5 win at Busch Stadium. London, Ont., native and Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Burgess was in the Cardinals’ dugout to witness this historic homer. Burgess, who would suit up for 17 contests for the Cardinals that season, pinch hit for Raschi in the bottom of the ninth inning and struck out.

-Aaron walloped 13 of his 755 major league home runs against the Montreal Expos. In 30 games at Jarry Park, Aaron hit .265 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.

-Aaron was 19-for-70 (.271 batting average) with two home runs against Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.). Jenkins also struck out Aaron 15 times. Jenkins was a teammate of Aaron’s on the 1967, 1971 and 1972 National League All-Star teams. The legendary Canadian expressed his condolences to Aaron’s family on Twitter on Friday (See below).

-Among the other Canadian pitchers that Aaron homered off during his major league career are Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Ron Taylor (Toronto, Ont.), Reggie Cleveland (Swift Current, Sask.) and Claude Raymond (St. Jean, Que.). Aaron took Taylor and Cleveland deep three times each, while he clubbed two round-trippers off Raymond. Aaron also went 5-for-13 (.385 batting average) against left-hander Ken MacKenzie (Gore Bay, Ont.), but he did not hit a home run off MacKenzie.

-Speaking of MacKenzie, he was one of three Canadians that played with Aaron on the Milwaukee Braves over the years. MacKenzie suited up alongside Aaron in 1960 and 1961. Piche pitched with Aaron in the Braves’ outfield behind him for parts of four seasons (1960 to 1963), while Raymond toed the rubber with Aaron in Milwaukee for parts of three seasons (1961 to 1963) and then for parts of three more when the Braves moved to Atlanta (1967 to 1969).

-Legendary Toronto Blue Jays manager and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Cito Gaston was 23 when he was Hank Aaron’s roommate for part of the 1967 season with the Atlanta Braves. Gaston often speaks of the profound influence that Aaron had on him. “Hank and I are good friends, and I’ve never expressed this to him, but he taught me how to be a man; how to stand on my own,” Gaston told Ebony magazine in their May 1994 issue. “Hank taught me how to handle my money and how to deal with many of those things associated with baseball off the field. He even taught me how to tie a tie. He was kind of a father-figure. And when you are younger and away from home, it’s good to run into those type of people. I just thank God that I ran into Hank Aaron.”

-Aaron was the National League’s Honorary caption at the 1991 MLB All-Star Game that was played at the SkyDome in Toronto. The American League won the game 4-2. The photo below shows Aaron doffing his cap in the pre-game introductions next to National League manager Lou Piniella.

Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves (center) doffs his hat at the All-Star Game at the Toronto Sky Dome in Toronto, Canada. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport

-Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker belted 49 home runs and stole 33 bases for the Colorado Rockies in 1997. This made him one of only nine players to sock 40 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. Aaron was the first to accomplish this when he hit 44 home runs and swiped 31 bases in 1963.

This is a photo of Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Wayne Norton (Port Moody, B.C.) with Hank Aaron. Prior to becoming a legendary scout, Norton played in triple-A with the Vancouver Mounties when he had the opportunity to meet Aaron. Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Published by cooperstownersincanada

Kevin Glew is a professional writer based in London, Ontario. His work has been featured on CBC Sports, Sportsnet.ca, MLB.com and Sympatico.ca. He has also written articles for Baseball Digest, Baseball America, The Hockey News, Sports Market Report and the Canadian Baseball Network. He has been involved with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for more than 16 years, including a two-year stint as the museum's acting curator.

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