Hank Aaron Remembered By Former Pirates Greats (www.mlb.com)

Longtime Pirates reliever Roy Face faced Hank Aaron 57 times during his career. It’s no surprise that the legendary Hall of Fame slugger had his fair share of success in that matchup, even against a reliever as accomplished as Face, recording 16 hits in 52 at-bats. But Face was proud

Longtime Pirates reliever Roy Face faced Hank Aaron 57 times during his career. It’s no surprise that the legendary Hall of Fame slugger had his fair share of success in that matchup, even against a reliever as accomplished as Face, recording 16 hits in 52 at-bats. But Face was proud that he didn’t give up a home run to Aaron until he was pitching for the Montreal Expos in 1969, the final season of Face’s 16-year career.

“That’s what I tell everybody: He wouldn’t have 755 if it wasn’t for me,” Face said Friday.

The Pirates community joined the rest of the baseball world in mourning and remembering Aaron, the American icon and former home run king, after learning of

. Players who once competed against Aaron told stories of his greatness on and off the field, of a feared hitter at the plate and of a graceful man who endured racist threats while chasing and breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record.

For all the Pirates alumni’s different memories and stories, they unanimously echoed a sentiment summarized with one word: Respect.

“Nothing but the utmost respect,” 1960 National League MVP Award winner Dick Groat said. “Great hitter. Great competitor. One of the special guys in baseball.”

“That’s Hank Aaron,” added right-hander Vern Law, who spent 16 years pitching for the Pirates. “He was a guy I respected and loved because of how committed he was to being a good player and a good person at the same time.”

And the former pitchers, especially, shared this thought from Face: “Everybody respected him when he walked up to the plate with a bat.”

Aaron batted .311 against the Pirates and hit 78 of his 755 career home runs off Pittsburgh pitchers, tied for his fifth-highest total against any team. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, after playing for 23 years, earning 25 All-Star selections, winning the NL MVP Award and a World Series championship in 1957, claiming two NL batting titles and owning baseball’s home run crown for 33 years.

“He was a good guy in every possible way. Great competitor. Played every day. I had nothing but the utmost respect for Henry Aaron,” Groat said. “He was a class guy in every way. One of the really great players in the history of baseball.”

For a few years, Groat’s name appeared alongside Aaron’s near the top of the NL batting average leaderboard. “Hammerin’ Hank” hit a Major League-best .355 in 1959, then Groat led the Majors with a .325 average in ’60.

“With him, you knew he was going to be there every year. He was a very special baseball player at both ends of the field, offensively and defensively,” Groat said. “There was a year or two where I competed with him for the batting championship. He was always a class guy in every way, played every day, great hitter. He had no weakness as a hitter. Great defensive player. Strong arm. He was one of the premier players in all of baseball.”

Face offered similar praise for Aaron’s abilities and accomplishments on the field, then shared a story that spoke to his kindness even amid competition. Face said someone told him of an interview in which a reporter asked Aaron about Face, Pittsburgh’s star reliever, and Aaron said something along the lines of, “When he comes into the game, it’s over.”

“That’s an honor to me,” Face said. “Never been in his company off the field or anything, but respected him — and his bat when he would come up to the plate.”

During his 16-year career, Law faced only four hitters more often than Aaron. With men on base, Law said, he was careful with Aaron. With a base open, he was even more cautious. Law gave up eight of Aaron’s 755 homers, but he said with a laugh on Friday that he didn’t feel too bad about that, because Don Drysdale was on the other end of 17 of them.

There was one story that stood out most to Law, which he recalled Friday afternoon.

On July 19, 1955, Law was running in the outfield at Forbes Field and preparing for his start the following day. Manager Danny Murtaugh approached him and asked, “Deacon, can you pitch tonight?” Law said he was ready, noting that Murtaugh told him the Pirates’ scheduled starter reported he was too sick to pitch against the Milwaukee Braves.

“I think maybe Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews made the guy sick,” Law said. “You know, could be.”

Mathews homered in the first inning, and the game was tied at 2 after four. Law kept it that way through nine innings and told his manager he’d keep pitching. Three innings later, he repeated his desire to stay in the game. After the 15th inning, he told Murtaugh much of the same: “Skip, for heck’s sake, after pitching this long, let me win or lose this thing.”

After 18 innings, Murtaugh finally pulled Law — who no longer had a say in the matter — and sent in Bob Friend for the 19th. Friend immediately walked Mathews, gave up a single to Aaron and allowed a run to score on a Chuck Tanner single. But the Pirates rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 19th, so Friend was the winning pitcher despite working only one inning.

What accomplishment did Law hold on the same level as pitching 18 innings? He somehow managed to hold the incomparable Hank Aaron hitless in seven straight at-bats.

“That’s a memory I have,” Law said. “I forget those when he might have hit a dinger off me.

“God bless him and his family. I know this is a very tough time for them, so my heart goes out to them because of the kind of person he was and the kind of family man he was along with it.”

Adam Berry covers the Rays for MLB.com and covered the Pirates from 2015-21. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.



Source link