When Richard Ryles was a young boy, his parents’ driveway was the site of springtime fish fries and heartfelt talks that if held today would need security to keep onlookers at a distance.
Sitting in plain sight of neighbors and passersby on Erie Place, about a mile from the old Municipal Stadium in downtown West Palm Beach, and eating catfish and telling stories, were some of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Dusty Baker, Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda, Richie Allen and, arguably the greatest home-run hitter of all time, Hank Aaron.
Sadly, they didn’t have much of a choice where they congregated.
In the late 1960s, Black players were not allowed to stay in some area hotels, so they were hosted by local families during spring training. Ryles’ family hosted Ralph Garr of the Atlanta Braves, who was a close friend to Aaron, his teammate.
And there they were on many February and March nights, sitting in Ryles’ driveway reminiscing and eating — always eating — mostly what they caught in the canal that connected Clear Lake and Lake Mangonia.
Always, one voice commanded the conversation — Hank’s.
“It was almost like they were sitting at his footstep listening to his advice and his experiences,” said Ryles, 58, the former West Palm Beach city commissioner. “They would hang on every word. It really was something unique to watch.
Aaron died Friday in Atlanta at the age of 86. An iconic athlete and trailblazer, Aaron still owned a home in West Palm Beach, making the area his second home after he started coming here in 1963 when the Braves moved their spring training headquarters to the new stadium on the corner of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Congress Avenue.
“Hammerin’” Hank played 23 seasons in the big leagues, 21 of those for the Braves, first in Milwaukee and then Atlanta, retiring as the greatest home run hitter in baseball history with 755. He played in 25 all-star games and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, 1982, with 97.8 percent of the vote.
Aaron purchased his first home in West Palm Beach when he was working as a Braves executive. The property was within walking distance of the stadium and he maintained a residence in the same area ever since. In 2010, before he was inducted into the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame, Aaron said of West Palm Beach, “when I’m there, I feel at home.”
West Palm Beach mayor Keith James said it was “a privilege” to have Aaron living in the city.
“Hank Aaron broke through the barriers of racism and segregation in the Jim Crow South to become one of America’s greatest ballplayers,” James said in a statement. “His actions paved the way for people of color to make their mark not only in sports but also in business, government, and all industries.”
Aaron’s last trip to West Palm Beach is believed to have been last spring before the coronavirus pandemic caused spring training, and sports around the globe, to shut down. In February, Ryles had dinner at Aaron’s West Palm Beach home along with Baker, now the Houston Astros manager.
“Everybody sitting around, Dusty telling stories, Hank chiming in,” Ryles said. “It was a bunch of laughs. Every family has a man of stature everybody treats with respect and he was that guy. It was no different, it was if it were the 1970s all over again.”
Calloway, who played minor league baseball before spending 25 years with the Palm Beach Sheriffs Office and dedicating his life to helping area youths, often called the Braves asking if any players would be willing to hold a clinic for the leagues he ran in Riviera Beach. Among those who showed up, asking for nothing in return, was Aaron.
“Hank Aaron was laid back, but he’d command the room,” Calloway said. “When he’d speak, you would listen.”
Aaron retired in 1976. Two years earlier, on April 8, he hit the most iconic home run in baseball history, his 715th, breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time record. The address of Municipal Stadium was changed to 715 Hank Aaron Drive and although the stadium was razed in 1997, Hank Aaron Drive still stands.
Although Barry Bonds surpassed Aaron’s mark of 755 in 2007, many still consider Aaron the Home Run King because of allegations that Bonds frequently used performance-enhancing drugs.
Aaron was an imposing figure around the stadium following his retirement. Working for the Braves, he would spend his time watching the Instructional League in the fall and winter.
Murray Cook, who worked for the Braves, was the stadium grounds keeper at the time. One day he took his son, Cameron, to the stadium during Instructional League and Aaron was sitting alone in the stands.
Aaron spotted Cook. “How you doing, son?” he said. “Your dad does a nice job here.” He then signed a ball for young Cam. “It was just one of those moments you look back at and remember that interaction,” Cook, 60, said. “That was Hank.”
On Friday, Cameron pulled out that ball and called his dad, who lives in Roanoke, Va., and is the official field and stadium consultant for Major League Baseball.
Aaron was involved in the local community. He joined then-West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel in the effort to revitalize Coleman Park, which was once a vibrant center of the county’s African-American population. It also was the park Negro League stars such as Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played their early baseball.
One of George Linley’s first duties as executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission was informing Aaron he was chosen to be part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2010. Aaron was still working for the Braves, who had relocated their spring headquarters to Orlando. Although Aaron could not get away on the night of the banquet, he offered to drive to his home in West Palm Beach a few days earlier to tape a video.
Linley was part of the crew that arrived at Aaron’s home.
“I remember going up to his house and knocking on his door,” Linley said. “He answered the door. Once I saw him I thought ‘this is a moment I’ll never forget. One of the greatest of all time that ranks at the top of the list in achievements in sports.’
“He was apologizing for not being able to be at the (ceremony), apologizing because of his obligations with the Braves. He was one of the most gracious individuals I’ve seen.”
Aaron spoke about how appreciative he was and how much the honor meant to him having been visiting and living in West Palm Beach for more than 45 years. He then offered to sign baseballs for the sports commission’s auction.
“I can understand why players that played with him didn’t want to disappoint him because he commanded the room,” Ryles said. “He was a giant of a personality, not necessarily the most vocal, but what he did say was profound.”