Fergie Jenkins on Hank Aaron’s impact, legacy
The baseball world was dealt a huge blow Friday morning when news broke that Hank Aaron had passed away at the age of 86.
Aaron was one of the game’s greatest and most influential players, a figure that transcends generations. Simply put: The story of the game cannot possibly be told without Aaron, who served as the all-time home run king for decades until Barry Bonds passed him in 2007.
Social media has been flooded with condolences and tributes from all around the world at the passing of a legend, from Barack Obama to Anthony Rizzo:
Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Aaron family and everyone who was inspired by this unassuming man and his towering example. pic.twitter.com/2RZdc82Y18— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 22, 2021
An American hero and baseball legend. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of Mr. Aaron's family and friends. I am proud every day to wear #44. RIP— Anthony Rizzo (@ARizzo44) January 22, 2021
Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins called Aaron one of his heroes:
Saddened to say today I lost one of my heroes, Henry Aaron. I was so Happy when I saw a man of color break the home run record. A great man both on and off the field. I send my love to the Aaron family. pic.twitter.com/2yXVjdn4X4— Fergie Jenkins (@fergieajenkins) January 22, 2021
Jenkins was so moved that he spoke to Chicago reporters Friday afternoon and explained what Aaron meant to him and the game, especially as fellow Black stars playing during the civil rights movement in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
“I had an opportunity to pitch against Hank Aaron 11 years,” Jenkins said. “An individual who had over 3,700 hits — he had his share of hits off me. He hit 2 home runs off me — 1 at Turner Field, 1 at Wrigley Field.
“But the icon that proved to be when he was getting close to Babe Ruth’s [home run] record, he took it in stride. … When he got close to 714, I know he received a lot of hate mail. Him and Ernie Banks talked a lot. Ernie knew Hank more than I did. The nice thing about it was he was able to handle the pressure and he went out there and played every day.”
Beyond playing against each other, the two baseball legends had the opportunity to interact often at the Hall of Fame gatherings each summer in upstate New York, chatting mostly about life and their family.
As Jenkins was growing up, he reveled in the ability to watch Aaron on Monday Night Baseball and always appreciated how dangerous he was as a hitter.
When Jenkins broke into the big leagues in 1965 as a September call-up, he had to face Aaron in Milwaukee.
“I got him to fly out to center field, so I considered myself pretty lucky,” Jenkins said. “To face a guy that you watch play and you idolize, I was very thrilled.”
Jenkins eventually became an All-Star in 1967 and he’ll never forget the outfield behind him in that appearance — Aaron in left, Willie Mays in center and Roberto Clemente in right.
Though Aaron no longer holds the record for home runs, he still paces all of baseball in RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856). He was a prodigious power hitter, but he didn’t sacrifice contact, sporting a .305 average with more walks (1,402) than strikeouts (1,383) over his 23-year career.
Aaron’s consistency was also remarkable — he never struck out 100 times in a season.
“Hank was diligent,” Jenkins said. “Very patient at the plate, didn’t swing at bad pitches. That’s a tribute to his ability. He knew the pitchers, he knew who he was going to face from [Don] Drysdale, Jenkins, [Tom] Seaver, [Don] Sutton, [Juan] Marichal, whoever.
“He was pretty tolerant when it comes to the plate and he would swing at his own pitch, not one you were trying to get him out with.”