CHICAGO — Fergie Jenkins considered Hank Aaron one of his heroes. He remembers the moments he got to see the iconic slugger on a national broadcast in his youth, fueling Jenkins’ own dreams of someday playing in the big leagues.
Jenkins also remembers being a green 22-year-old September callup for
Jenkins also remembers being a green 22-year-old September callup for the Phillies in 1965, when the pitcher was tasked with facing Aaron just three games into his career.
“To face a guy that you watched play and you idolized,” Jenkins said, “I was really thrilled.”
On Friday, Jenkins joined the rest of the baseball world in mourning the loss of Aaron,
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
With steady production, poise and class, Aaron marched toward baseball’s all-time home run record, launching his 715th blast during the 1974 campaign. That eclipsed Babe Ruth’s mark of 714, and it was not a universally welcomed accomplishment. Aaron achieved the feat with dignity, even as he dealt with hatred from corners of the country.
“When he got close to 714,” Jenkins said, “I know that he received a lot of hate mail. Him and
Aaron ended his career with 755 home runs in 23 Major League seasons — a mark that held until Barry Bonds surpassed it in 2007 and finished with 762.
“I truly think that he is still the all-time home run hitter in baseball,” Jenkins said of Aaron. “I just think that [with] what he had to go through to get there.”
Jenkins was traded to the Cubs early in the 1966 season, won a National League Cy Young Award for Chicago in ’71, earned induction into the Hall of Fame and is arguably the greatest pitcher in franchise history. The prime of Jenkins’ career intersected with the second half of Aaron’s stellar run with the Braves and Brewers.
Jenkins and Aaron squared off 77 times overall, with the Hall of Fame slugger hitting .271/.325/.443 against the Hall of Fame right-hander. Aaron notched 19 of his 3,771 career hits off Jenkins, belting career home runs No. 521 (May 31, 1969) and No. 580 (July 25, 1970) off the pitcher.
“He got his share of hits off me,” Jenkins said with a chuckle. “Hank was diligent. Very patient at the plate. Didn’t swing at bad pitches. And that’s, I think, a tribute to his ability. He knew the pitchers. … He was swinging at his own pitch — not one that you were trying to get him out with.”
In 179 career games at Wrigley Field, all Aaron did was hit .337/.376/.612 with 50 home runs and 150 RBIs. His 50 homers at the Friendly Confines were his most at any ballpark outside Atlanta or Milwaukee.
Rest in peace, Hank Aaron.
A baseball legend who transcended the sport. pic.twitter.com/YpQ2C5fZ5H
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) January 22, 2021
During his Zoom discussion with reporters on Friday, Jenkins also recounted one of his favorite memories.
During the 1967 All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif. — Jenkins’ first career Midsummer Classic — the pitcher took the mound in the sixth inning and peered at the outfield. He had
“I would love to have that outfield on a daily basis playing behind me,” Jenkins said. “That many hits. That many home runs. Such a quality of so many players that really respected me, and I respected their ability.”
Jenkins also respected the example Aaron set, and the path he and others helped create for Jenkins and other young aspiring Black ballplayers.
“You’d see Willie Mays, Hank Aaron,” Jenkins said, “quite a few of the players that were players of color. Larry Doby, at the time, was still playing. But the thing was that [Aaron] was a home run hitter — a hitter that was dangerous every time he came to the plate.”
Jenkins concluded his discussion with a simple sentiment that summed up the icon’s impact.
“He was an outstanding ballplayer,” Jenkins said. “A great gentleman.”