Billy Williams and his 'neighbor'
Hall of Famer reminisces about his friend Hammerin' Hank
Hall of Famer Billy Williams grew up in Whistler, Ala., just outside Mobile, where Henry Aaron was raised. They were contemporaries for many years, Williams with the Cubs and Aaron with the neighboring Braves. Williams, about to turn 69, is now a senior advisor to the Cubs. Here are his recollections on Aaron.
"I first saw Henry playing with the Mobile Black Barons, because I had a brother pitching on the baseball team. Henry played second base. The story goes -- and the story is true -- is that he was a cross-handed-hitting second baseman.
"This tells me he taught himself how to hit a baseball. Normally, if a coach gets you, they try to correct you right off the bat. He didn't have the kind of training most young kids would have. He found what worked for him, and that's how he hit. You don't take a guy's style away.
"Henry was unique. There was an All-Star Game, and Yogi Berra was catching, and Aaron had the bat brand turned a different way. Yogi said, 'You have the bat brand in the wrong position,' and Henry told Yogi, 'I didn't come up here to read. I came up here to hit,' and he proceeded to hit a line drive to the outfield. It's amazing the type of hitter he was. He wasn't a big guy. He never hit 50 home runs. He was just consistent.
"One of the things that happened was that Aaron was playing with the Mobile Black Barons, and we lost him to the Negro Leagues. He went to the Indianapolis Clowns. It was like a Globetrotter-type team. They had some good players. One of the players was a lady and she played second base. Aaron went to the outfield because she played second base. It could've been the best thing that happened to him because he was an outfielder when [Bobby] Thomson got hurt [in March 1954] and he was called up to the Major Leagues.
"I used to live in the area with his father. I used to see him all the time -- they had a grocery story. I used to see his father a lot and, like any parent, he was proud of his kids, and he was very proud of Henry. That's what we called him. A lot of people called him Hank. We called him Henry. I remember at Wrigley Field, when I was first called up, he was walking to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, and everybody was calling, 'Hank, Hank, Hank -- hey, Hank.' I said, 'Hey, Henry,' and he looked right around because he knew it was somebody from Mobile.
"He got the chance to come to the big leagues because Bobby Thomson broke his leg and he was an outfielder. Over the years, we would work out just before Spring Training. Not too long -- we'd take about two weeks. We'd go to Carver Stadium. We'd have Tommie Agee, we'd have Cleon Jones, we'd have Henry's brother [Tommie], we'd have Willie McCovey, we'd have my brother Franklin, and George Scott would come down. This was two weeks before Spring Training, and we'd go out and hit. Every guy would have two rounds of hitting. And then we'd call it a day and we'd go sit in the stands and just talk baseball. You know Henry was the focal point. He'd get up and have the floor, and talk about the pitching in the Major Leagues and talk about playing in the Major Leagues. This was both before I got to the Major Leagues and after. It's amazing -- Willie McCovey wore No. 44, and Henry Aaron wore No. 44, and they tied for the lead one year for the most home runs. Guess how many? Forty-four.
"He did everything with ease. He could steal a base, ran good, hit the ball out of the ballpark. He ran the bases real good. He did everything, but they were always talking about Mays and Clemente.
"The first few years Henry was in the big leagues, being from Alabama and from that area, you observe things before you really open up. Mays brought the attention of the fans. He'd run around first base and he's sliding, and going to second base, he gets on his knees and stuff. He drew the attention of the fans. Clemente was real flashy. Aaron wasn't like that. He did everything you were supposed to do to play the game of baseball and play it well.
"We played a game in Milwaukee. In that game, I was playing right field at the time. It was cold -- 40 degrees, snowing -- and he hit a ball that hit me right in the palm, and you talk about something hitting hard.
"He was such a great player, I think he's lacking the recognition and all that. If he played in an era with all the television and publicity that surrounds players now, I think he'd be at the top of the list. He played in the golden era and did everything there was to do in this game, but he did it with such ease, he wasn't flashy. He just got it done.
"It's one of the things I'll always remember [about getting hitting tips from Aaron]. He would always say, 'Don't let the pitch come to you, go out and get it,' and I think that made me aggressive. You have to go out and get it. That's the one thing. We talked about hitting, and that's the one thing I remember. Go get the pitch."
As told to MLB.com reporter Carrie Muskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.