Two of the first things that come to mind when Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins remembers the legendary Hank Aaron include the pitcher’s first All-Star game in Anaheim, in 1967, when he looked at the outfield behind him and saw Aaron in left, Willie Mays in center and Roberto Clemente in right.
“Just as a youngster, I was thinking, ‘I’d love to have that outfield,’ “ Jenkins said of a group that arguably represented the greatest outfield ever assembled for a game.
He also is quick to remember this about the man many still consider baseball’s home run king: “I pitched 11 years against Hank Araon in the National League and the American League, and was fortunate enough he only hit a couple home runs off me,” Jenkins, the fellow Hall of Famer, said, “one at [Atlanta’s] Turner Field, one at Wrigley.”
Jenkins, who called Aaron one of his childhood heroes as well as a feared opponent, expressed the feelings of many players, former players and fans when he called the news of the iconic slugger’s death Friday at 86 a “shock.”
He stood barely 6-feet, but Aaron was a bigger-than-life figure within a game that stole much of its joy from him as he dealt with racist hate and threats, especially during his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in the 1970s — an even greater figure, it seemed, during a post-playing career as an outspoken ambassador and activist from his Hall of Fame platform.
“The honor of shaking hands with Hank Aaron, the all-time home run leader at the time, before [Barry] Bonds, and [Willie] Mays, that was an outstanding thing to do,” said Jenkins, who last saw Aaron during the 2019 Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown.
Jenkins recalls Aaron used a cane and wheelchair to get around that weekend after recovering from a broken hip, “but his health looked OK,” the longtime Cubs pitcher said. “And then I saw he got the vaccine last week.”
The past year has included the deaths of more Hall of Famers — and perhaps the most iconic list of inner-circle greats — than any other year, including, just in the last five months, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford and Aaron.
Al Kaline died a few months earlier. And Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Tommy Lasorda also passed in recent weeks.
Jenkins includes the great Dick Allen, who is not yet in the Hall, on that list.
“I knew them all extensively, pitched against most of them,” Jenkins, 78, said. “The Almighty, when he calls upon you, you have to leave. We’re here for only a short period of time. We hope that while we’re here, we can do something to make an important [mark] with our lives.”
Many of those players were part of the generation of players who were heroes to the baby boomers — arguably the most beloved, if not the greatest, generation of players in the game’s history.
It was the time of the greatest growth of American integration in the game, a time when baseball still held a cultural significance in the country over most other sports.
And Aaron stood above most in that generation, in accomplishment, presence, integrity, voice and fierce grace under often enormous pressure.
“Rosalynn and I are saddened by the passing of our dear friend Henry Aaron,” former U.S. President and Georgie governor Jimmy Carter said in a statement. “One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us.”
A quote from Aaron to columnist William C. Rhoden near the 20th anniversary of breaking Ruth’s record, on the vicious racism he faced:
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time.
“I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. they carved a piece of my heart away.”
Jenkins, a Black Canadian player who came along a decade after Aaron’s rise from one-time Negro Leagues player and brief minor-leaguer, knows the stories, some of them first hand from his own career.
He heard the taunts and slurs throughout a minor-league career spent mostly in the American south while in Philadelphia’s minor-league system before being traded to the Cubs as a young big-leaguer. He tried to tune it out and focus on advancing quickly beyond that town.
“Chattanooga, Little Rock,” Jenkins recalled, “You had a chance to get through that situation and then get to the big leagues. But I felt safe on the ballfield, even playing in the south. When I got traded to the cubs, I was already in the big leagues. I didn’t look back.”