The NY Times quotes Willie Mays, "When I played, it was me and Aaron" and goes on to write about "the mutual respect between Mays and Aaron and their years of friendship." Maybe so, maybe not. They were rivals and Mays did not treat his rivals kindly. Mays was one of the better bench jockeys in baseball history and I was witness to one of Mays's best bits of riding a rival.
It's July 1957, I'm working for United Press/Movietonenews, and I'm up at the Polo Grounds, on assignment from WBZ/Boston to interview Milwaukee Braves manager, Fred Haney, left hander Warren Spahn and the new phenom, Hank Aaron. WBZ wanted the interviews to promote the upcoming Jimmy Fund baseball game between the Braves and the Red Sox .
The Jimmy Fund had been created by the Braves when they were still the Boston Braves and they returned to Boston every year to help raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the name of "Jimmy," a pseudonym for a 12-year old boy who was a patient there. It was Aaron's first appearance in the game and his potential for greatness was apparent to all. The Boston fans wanted to see him in action.
The Braves were playing the Giants in a twi-night double header. We arrived about 5pm, set up our camera in foul territory, just off third base. Haney emerged from the dugout, did the interview, plugged the Jimmy Fund and then sent out Warren Spahn. Spahn told us how much he missed the fans in Boston and looked forward to seeing them shortly. All good PR. Then out came Aaron. Aaron was different. The Boston fans had never seen Aaron. WBZ had asked me to talk to him about baseball, particularly about his wrists, supposed to be "the quickest wrists in all of baseball."
As we changed film for the new interview, Willie Mays came trotting in from centerfield where he had been shagging flies and knelt just on the fair side of the foul line. Dusk was falling, we had no electrician and I had to finish the interview before the light faded entirely.
As we focused on Aaron, the cameraman measuring the distance between the lens and his subject, Mays started ragging on Aaron: "How much they paying you, Hank? They ain't payin' you at all, Hank? Don't you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?"
Aaron is getting more and more agitated. Fred Haney trots out and explains to Aaron "It's the Jimmy Fund-- it's charity. It's okay." We begin the interview then to get a better shot of his wrists, we move the tripod. Now Mays lays it on thick: "You showin' 'em how you swing? We get paid $300-$400 for this. You one dumb n****r!" and he laughs. Finally we were done. Aaron shakes his head, I thank him, but half angry, half bewildered, he spits at my feet.
When he gets back in the dugout, Haney tries to calm him down. It doesn't work. Mays has gotten into Aaron's head. Haney recognizes it and takes Hank out of the line-up. He plays not at all in the first game, in the second game he pinch hits and walks, Willie had harassed Hank right out of the batting order.
Aaron missed about eight at-bats in the double-header. Over his career, he hit about one home run for every sixteen at-bats. It's simple arithmetic. Given eight more at-bats, Hank might have hit one more home run and he'd still be one ahead of Bonds.
The Times cites Mays-Aaron's "years of friendship". I wouldn't bet on it.