An Unfitting End: The Final Game of Henry Aaron’s Career

Sep. 6, 2016
Google plus Linkedin Pinterest
hankaaron

Henry Aaron in the dugout during his final game.

Photo Courtesy Getty Images


Bob Uecker and Henry Aaron crowded into a vacated storage room in the bowels of County Stadium, just as they had before each Brewers home game of the past two seasons. They were recording the final installment of the “Locker 44 Show,” the pregame radio interview with baseball’s home run king that ran before Brewers broadcasts on WTMJ. It was October 3, 1976. Henry Louis Aaron, owner of dozen or so of baseball’s all-time records, was about to play his last game ever. Uecker started the tape while Aaron leaned against the wall, dressed only in his underclothes. “Well, Henry,” began Uecker, “this is it.”

Aaron sighed. He said that he had only become emotional the night before, when he cried at the thought of never playing baseball again. But now, he had a game to play. One last game on a pitiful Brewers team about to finish with the worst record of any team Aaron had ever played on. And Aaron himself was only a shadow of the player he once was. He was posting career lows in nearly every offensive category (although advance stats still show him as slightly better than a league-average hitter) and had only played in 84 games that season. August and September, the dogs days of the season that often grind on older players, had been particularly cruel. Aaron was playing only about twice a week, batting a meager .156 with only three extra base hits. He hadn’t homered since July 20. “After all these years,” He told Uecker, “it boils down to a couple of hours and four at bats.”

 
Aaron on deck for the Brewers.

As he sat in front of his locker before the game, reporters crowded at his feet, some who had been covering him since he had debuted in Milwaukee 22 years ago. They wanted most to know about his plans for the future. The topic had become a familiar one between Aaron and the media. When the Brewers acquired him in the fall of 1974, he had been promised – and it was announced to the public – that he would be offered a role in the Brewers front office after his playing career was over. It had been the lack of such a commitment from the Atlanta Braves that had, in part, motivated his move to Milwaukee. In fact, the Brewers had offered Aaron a job while he was still an active player, just months into the 1975 season. In late June, with the team struggling and president Bud Selig wary of field manager Del Crandall’s leadership, Selig offered Aaron Crandall’s job – which would have made him just the second African American skipper in baseball history. But Aaron turned down the offer. “I didn’t go over there to manage,” he said in 1987, “I was there to play baseball, I wasn’t prepared to manage.” Aaron also did not want to undercut Crandall, a teammate from his Milwaukee Braves days and good friend. When Aaron agreed to return for the 1976 season, it was still being reported that he would enter the Milwaukee front office following the year. But by the time Aaron dressed for last time on the field, the worst-kept secret in baseball was that upon his retirement, he would go to work for the Braves. Responding to reporters that day, however, Aaron would only say that his long-promised job with the Brewers was still under consideration. “It depends on well things go between Selig and myself,” he said.

Years later, Aaron would admit that those “things” had soured long before his final game. Although he declined to say what had gone wrong, he cited his relationship with Selig as the reason he would not be returning to the Brewers. “I was on very bad terms with the owner at the time,” he said in 1987. “I wasn’t going to be stuck in Milwaukee working for somebody who didn’t want me.”

Fewer than 7,000 were on hand for that afternoon as the Brewers hosted the Tigers. Shortstop Robin Yount led off for Milwaukee. Yount had not even been born when Aaron began his Major League career. Batting cleanup, Aaron grounded out twice before coming to bat in the sixth inning with George Scott on second base and Charlie Moore at third. Aaron laced a grounder to the right side of Tigers shortstop Jerry Manuel, who got a glove on the ball, but bobbled it. Aaron – his legs slowed by age – managed to hoof it safely to first and Moore scooted home to make the score Detroit 5, Milwaukee 2.

 
Aaron collects one last hit in his final Major League at bat.

An appreciative roar emerged from the sparsely populated grandstand as Aaron stood at first base. With a list of accomplishments as long as any living American athlete, Aaron had one more mark on his mind at the moment – sole possession of second place on the all-time runs scored list. He was, at the moment, tied with Babe Ruth at 2174 behind Ty Cobb. But manager Alex Grammas was unaware of the mark and sent infielder Jim Gantner in to pinch run for Aaron. Grammas wanted to see Aaron end his career with a hit. As Aaron walked from the field for the final time, the crowd stood and applauded. Moore and Yount greeted him as he retuned to the dugout. The ovation and handshakes were the only bit of pageantry witnessed that afternoon.

After the game, another Brewers loss, Aaron was reserved as he spoke again for the press. He admitted he had wanted a chance at that last run and perhaps one more time at bat, but refused to make an issue of it. “My career is done with – over with. Let it go at that.” As he undressed and had his usual post-game cigarette (he later said it was the last he would ever smoke), he expressed frustration with his performance as a Brewer. “I’ve been playing on borrowed time the last two years,” he said. “It’s been embarrassing for the kind of career I’ve had to be finishing with a .229 average.”

Asked what he would miss most about playing, Aaron – long weary of the attention the game had brought him – said it was the clubhouse. “[That is] where I had isolation from the outside world. I’ve had the most peaceful moments of my life there.”

In the following day’s Milwaukee papers, Aaron’s exit was given less attention than the Packers’ 24-14 win over the Lions. There was a sadness about the moment, one that went beyond the loss of an all-time great and a fan favorite. The Milwaukee Sentinel’s Mike Gonring saw it that way. “Kings deserve better,” he wrote. “[Aaron] ended it in bad company, surrounded by a team that played as if it didn’t know how to win, in front of a crowd that did not reflect the importance of the moment.”

Poll

Given his political beliefs and past comments about women, is Judge Neil Gorsuch too out of touch with the mainstream to serve on the Supreme Court?

Getting poll results. Please wait...