If the relationship between Henry Aaron and the baseball fans of Milwaukee is "one of the great love affairs of all time," as someone has said, then his return to County Stadium last week as a Milwaukee Brewer was one of the grand reunions.
A club record turnout of 48,160 showed its hankering for Hank by waving pennants and serenading him with a ditty to the tune of Hello, Dolly.
Welcome home, Henry.
Welcome home, Henry.
Ifs so nice to have you back
Where you belong.
The game itself, a 6-2 defeat of Cleveland, showed Aaron to be looking swell and going strong. He did not blast a home run, but he did get his first American League hit, run and RBI.
Anticipation for the day had been building since early November, when Aaron received a three a.m. phone call in Japan announcing the termination of his 21-year career with the Braves of Milwaukee and Atlanta. "I'm going home," he told the caller, Brewer President Bud Selig. "Isn't that great?"
For Aaron, home is where the heart is. He was born in Alabama 41 years ago and spent the last nine years in Atlanta. But Milwaukee is where he got his major league start, enjoyed 12 of his best seasons and hit more than half of his record 733 home runs. When the Braves did not offer him the player-development job he wanted for this season, he followed Babe Ruth's precedent of 40 years ago and went "home." The American League's designated-hitter rule will keep Aaron busy the next two years. After that he can work with young prospects "to perpetuity," as Selig puts it. "There's nothing I'm more proud of than bringing Henry Aaron back to Milwaukee," Selig says. "And that includes giving this town a new franchise five years ago."
Last Thursday, the day before the Brewers' home opener, Aaron returned the compliment at a civic luncheon. "I always thought you people were responsible for my career," he said. "When I made mistakes on the field, you stuck with me. Young players are blessed to be in a city like this."
It was clear and cold on Aaron's homecoming day, and when he arrived at the stadium an autograph seeker stopped him to say, "I haven't been back here since you left."
Once inside the clubhouse Aaron went to his cubicle, where he smoked a cigarette, drank a cup of coffee, sang a snatch of song: "He's got the whole world in His hands."
Among the other ballplayers getting dressed was the Brewers' shortstop, Robin Yount. At 19 he is the youngest player in the majors. Aaron, the oldest, batted .314 the year Yount was born.