Hank Aaron played his final major league baseball game on Sunday, October 3, 1976. At age 42 and after 23 years of baseball, Aaron held 11 major league records. His career had come full circle as the home run king ended up in Milwaukee where he started out back in 1954 in a Braves uniform. While some things remained the same with Hammerin’ Hank, much had changed in his final seasons.
Bud Selig spent two months diligently trying to bring Aaron back to Milwaukee when it became clear the Atlanta Braves wanted him only for a figurehead front office job. Selig’s wish was granted when the Brewers traded outfielder Dave May with minor league pitcher Roger Alexander to Atlanta for Aaron on November 2, 1974. Aaron had been hoping to find a home with an American League club to continue playing as a designated hitter, and Braves owner William Bartholomay was “happy to give Hank this opportunity in accordance with his wish.”
Aaron provided Brewers fans with an opportunity to see him return to the city where he hit more than half of his career home runs – 398 with the Milwaukee Braves – over a 12 year stint. Selig was understandably elated to bring “unquestionably the greatest player of our generation” and his personal friend back to Milwaukee. “Henry is coming home,” Selig proclaimed.
“I’m thrilled to come back to the city where I started my baseball career, and I am happy that the Atlanta Braves saw fit to work so closely with me to meet my request,” Aaron said. “I look forward to working with the entire Brewers organization.”
Aaron initially played for former teammate Del Crandall who was managing the team. He would go on to hit his final career home run at Milwaukee County Stadium and played in his final All-Star Game there as well.
Aaron admitted he was nowhere near the same player he was just a few years earlier, as he was hobbled by knee injuries. But he was still a great guy to have around the clubhouse and a positive role model for younger players – and the Brewers certainly had a few inexperienced guys on their roster. If Aaron could mentor the youngsters and hit a few homers, that was a bonus to the team.
“Over here at least I know I’ll get an opportunity to help the kids,” Aaron said. “That’s all I was really looking for in Atlanta.
Infielder Don Money was understandably excited to be on the same team as the legendary Hank Aaron. At their first spring training together in 1975, Money told reporters “I’m 27, I’ve been in the big leagues for seven years, and I feel just like the kids do. I feel he’s going to be a tremendous influence around here.”
Money pointed out that Robin Yount wasn’t even born yet when Aaron started playing in the big leagues (Yount was actually a little over a year old). He added, “Two years ago Yount was in high school. Aaron was one of his idols, and now he’s playing on the same team as him.”
The other position players that would later contribute to the team’s success included outfielders Sixto Lezcano, Gorman Thomas, and Charlie Moore. Infielder Jim Gantner would make his debut in Aaron’s final month. Pitchers that were with the team when the Brewers reached respectability a couple years later included Bill Castro, Moose Haas, Bill Travers, Jerry Augustine, and Jim Slaton.
Aaron did play in 137 games in 1975, but hit just.234 with 12 home runs. The totals were lower in 1976, with just 85 games and a .229 average with 10 homers. He was primarily a designated hitter and only appeared in left field for four games (23 innings) in the final two years. He also attempted just one stolen base in 1975-76.
It had been over two months since Aaron hit his final home run when the Brewers took the field on October 3. His 755th and final dinger came on Tuesday, July 20, off Dick Drago of the California Angels. It was home run #420 in either a Milwaukee Braves or Brewers uniform. Only 10,134 fans were on hand at County Stadium to see the last time Hank would hit one out of the park. Attendance at Hank’s final game was even lower at just 6858.
Most fans chose to attend “Salute to Hank Aaron Night” in September to honor the slugger. The team set up the event as they knew Aaron’s retirement would come after the season ended. Aaron was in the lineup on his special night, but went 0 for 5 and the Brewers fell to the New York Yankees 5-3 in 11 innings. The biggest thrills came in the hour long pre-game ceremony when fans gave Aaron three standing ovations that each lasted more than two minutes. He also received standing ovations every time he came up to bat from the 40,383 fans.
At the time, Aaron sadly admitted his reflexes were gone. “I can’t pull the trigger like I used to,” he commented. “After a certain age Mother Nature takes over. There’s no more there.”
After his final career homer, Aaron appeared in just 23 games. He didn’t play in the season-ending home stand until the last game against the Detroit Tigers. Former major league infielder Alex Grammas was manager of the Brewers in 1976, and penciled Aaron in to hit fourth and play his customary DH role that day. Yount, Moore, and Lezcano were also in the lineup as a sign of good things to come.
While Grammas had been highly recommended and regarded when he was hired by the Brewers, some players didn’t think much of his managerial methods. As an example, infielder Mike Hegan once said “Grammas is a nice guy, but as a manager, he makes a good third base coach.”
Dave Roberts was on the mound for the Tigers, and was able to induce Aaron into grounding out to third and short in his first two at bats. In the sixth inning he had another chance to bat after Moore singled and George Scott doubled him to third.
Hammerin’ Hank came to the plate next and hit a ball in the hole that bounced off shortstop Jerry Manual’s glove for a single. He drove in a run in the process, putting him at 2297 for his career. It is a record that he holds to this day.
Aaron had no intention of coming out of the game at that point. His hope was to score a run and break a tie with Babe Ruth for second place in career runs scored. They have since dropped to fourth on the all-time list. Not only that, he just wanted another at bat to perhaps get another hit.
Grammas hadn’t talked with Aaron before the game about any of his wishes, and made the decision to end the storied career for him with that hit. He sent out Gantner to pinch run for Aaron.
Gantner did not wind up scoring, which gave Grammas an opportunity to defend his decision in hindsight. He said, “He (Aaron) has so many records. Look at it this way – he wouldn’t have scored anyway.”
As it turned out, Aaron would have gotten another at bat had he stayed in the game. Gantner stayed in the game and batted in his spot in the eighth inning against Roberts, and flew out.
The game ended in a 5-2 loss for the Brewers. Aaron’s first game also ended in a loss by a score of 9-8 to the Cincinnati Reds. In that game he did not get a hit off starter Joe Nuxhall.
Milwaukee finished the year with a 66-95 record, good for last place in the American League East division and 32 games behind the front running New York Yankees.
As he exited from the game he loved so much, Aaron commented that he was ready to go home, take it easy, spend time with his family, and watch his youngest son play football. “I just want to be remembered as a complete ballplayer,” he said. “I would like people to know that I wanted to be the kind of player who could hit the ball, run, throw, and catch.”
He added, “I’ve been playing on borrowed time the last couple of years. It has been kind of embarrassing for the kind of career I’ve had to be finishing with a .229 batting average. There are plenty of things I wanted to do but couldn’t.”
One thing that Hammerin’ Hank could do was mentor young players. In retrospect we may be able to view Aaron as a bridge to the successful Brewers teams of 1978-82.
You can read my previous post about Hank’s final home run Here.
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