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What it was like for Giants pitchers to face Hank Aaron


Bob Free/The Enquirer-Imagn Content Services, LLC


A lifetime can be lived and forgotten in 48 years, memories made that the endless assault of time scrubs away.

And then there are a few essential enough that they, a half-century later, can be recalled in an instant.

“Seven-hundred ten was late in the season,” Don Carrithers remembered, correctly, of a Sept. 10, 1973, game between the Giants and Braves in Atlanta. “I believe I got deep into the count [it was a 2-1 count]. I was a fastball pitcher, had to go with the fastball. It was down the middle. Garry Maddox was playing left field, and he almost caught it — he went up over the fence, almost caught the ball, but it was gone.”

Forty-five more times pitchers got victimized by Henry Aaron as he took hold of a hallowed record in Major League Baseball and the United States that belonged to a larger-than-life figure beloved by white America. Aaron did it with grace in the face of racism and threats that made his chase an ordeal rather than the thrill of a lifetime it should have been.

One of the greatest players to ever take the field died Friday. Aaron’s passing, at 86, evoked memories of a real-life hero whose long balls captured the attention of the world; a real-life hero who braved racism mostly with public silence, as furious as it must have made him.

And evoked memories of a hell of a lot of frustrated pitchers.

The ones that came to the mind of Jim Barr, a Giant from 1971-78 and again in 1982-83, involved the difficulties that Aaron presented in the box. Barr allowed No. 694 to the legend — “I’m only surprised he only got the one” — but it was more than the home runs that he had to fear.

Pure power hitters could be pitched to their weak spots in the zone, often finessed with offspeed. Aaron, though, could connect with anything and everything. Erasing his 755 career MLB home runs, he still would have recorded 3,016 hits. There was no escape.

“Hank didn’t give off the attitude that he was a great hitter. He stepped in the box to be the hitter that was needed at that time in the game,” Barr, who managed to hold Aaron to 3-for-15 with that homer and a double in his career, said on a phone call. “Being the type of hitter he was, he carried himself with confidence. … My thinking was: I’ll give you the single, but I’m not going to give you the home run.”

Aaron went 5-for-10 with a pair of homers — No. 633, too, that one at Candlestick — off Carrithers, a Giant from 1970-73 before pitching for the Expos and Twins. He tried to jam him with fastballs and had a good sinker that induced some ground balls, after which Aaron “wasn’t real happy.” Few pitchers were when facing Aaron.

The legend of Hammerin’ Hank cannot be told without the backlash he faced as a Black man from Mobile, Ala., who cracked into America’s pastime and steadily rewrote record books. Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs were sacred, and during Aaron’s march toward baseball immortality, he absorbed racial epithets and threats like some players get praise.

He was quiet, both pitchers remembered, when he had every reason to be loud. Barr worked up the courage to approach him a couple times before games in the batting cage, where Aaron always wore a smile.

It was early in the career of Barr, who debuted in 1971, when he told Aaron he had played a good game the night before and good luck on his next one.

“He said, ‘You bet, man, let’s go do it again,'” said Barr, now a coach at Granite Bay High School outside Sacramento. “You don’t forget stuff like that — when a guy [like Aaron] recognizes a guy who’s only been around the league for two or three years.”

Barr didn’t forget stuff like a Sept. 10, 1971, game in Atlanta, either. He remembers a couple rain delays pushing the game to the earliest hours of Sept. 11. He remembers Jerry Johnson on the mound for the Giants, though he only threw a few pitches upon the re-start. Aaron quickly turned an 11th-inning deficit into a 7-5 Braves win over the Giants at around 1 a.m.

“Game over,” Barr said. “Next day in the paper he comes out and goes, ‘I’ve done a lot of things after midnight, but never playing baseball.'”

He did it all without public displays that could offend the pitching victims. There was admiration and frustration but little agitation from the pitchers’ points of view. Aaron was just better than just about everyone else, and there was not much to do to stop him.

That anger instead came from fans.

“I remember going to some ballpark — to Atlanta — and they cheered him, but I wondered: Why aren’t they cheering him more than what they are?” Barr said. “And then they come to Candlestick, and they don’t cheer him as much as you normally would, a guy that’s that good a ballplayer. It was confusing.”

What was more confounding was Aaron did it all without complaint. He crafted a legend and became an idol while lifting a bat and not a finger.

“He played the game like it was supposed to be played,” said Carrithers, now retired. “And did a great job of it.”

 

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