“He was a great teammate who knew how to play the game, and showed up for work every day not caring what it looked like – he did what he had to do to help win ballgames.”
The words of Hall of Famer Joe Torre, joining Carton & Roberts on WFAN to remember fellow enshrine and ex-Braves teammate Hank Aaron, who passed away Friday at age 86.
“He was great. He was a great player from early on. He used to kid around in the clubhouse with good natured barbs, but he kept pretty much to himself,” Torre continued of Aaron. “Hank was quiet – he made all his noise with his bat, and for all the home runs, he was a great pure hitter – but he was very unselfish, was an excellent defensive outfielder in right field with a great arm, and did everything to try to help you win a ball game.”
Torre told one specific story about that “unselfish” and “trying to win” tip.
“I hit behind him for eight years, and when he was at first base and I had a bad count, especially with 2 outs, Hank would try to steal,” Torre said. “If he was safe, great, but if he was out, I’d start the next inning with a fresh count. I could go to sleep on that! He was a great teammate.”
One other thing Torre got to see first-hand, though, was the struggle Aaron went through as a black player training, and eventually working, in the South when the Braves moved to Atlanta.
“I think it was 1962, my first spring with the Braves; we were in Bradenton, Fla., moving into a new hotel, but they didn’t take black players. So the Braves moved us out, and we moved to a nearby community into a small motel so all the players could stay together,” Torre said. “That’s what it was in Florida; they didn’t have all the things available to white players.”
It was a problem Torre had seen first-hand thanks to visiting his brother, Frank, when he played in Atlanta in the then-Southern League.
“I visited him and was looking for a restroom, and I saw they had colored restrooms and water fountains. That struck me,” Torre said. “I had African-American kids in my class, so it never occurred to me places were like that. Then, you look, and all the African-American fans were sitting in one section.”
Baseball clubhouses, especially the ones Torre was in, were never that way – “we were all baseball players, and that’s what was first and foremost,” he said – but
“It’s mind-boggling, and unfortunately, we’ve seen what’s happened as recently as this year, how alive that feeling is amongst a lot of people, unfortunately.”
Aaron came up in the era before free agency, and salaries weren’t as exorbitant as they are today, but Torre did confirm a story Craig found: Aaron signed with the Braves over the Giants because the salary the then-Boston team offered was $50 more a month, so roughly $300 robbed the world of seeing Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in the same outfield.
They would’ve worked well together, an iconic right fielder and center fielder, but yeah, the money wasn’t there,” Torre said. “My first year in the bigs, 1961, I think my salary was like $7,000. We’ve come a long way. For Hank, he got to Atlanta and finally made $100K, and that was really the mark – you get there, that means you’re a superstar. Now, if you have a good year – and I don’t resent this as a union guy – you make 100 times that.”
And, when asked who in today’s game reminds him most of Aaron, Torre noted someone who indeed makes a lot more than $100K – about 330 times that over the life of his current contract, to be exact.
“I had a special player with me for 12 years in Derek Jeter, but the one guy who shows me a lot of those attributes is Mookie Betts,” Torre said. “He’s not the pure hitter Hank was, but he does all the things to try to help you win ballgames.”