Bud Selig

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, left, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon speak at the Phoenix Art Museum’s Luncheon of Legends to raise money for educational programming.  

A 60-year friendship between two of the most influential men in baseball history gave a boost to a recent Phoenix Art Museum event.

Former Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig and National Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron were the guests of honor at the museum’s annual Luncheon of Legends on March 16, an event that raises money for educational programs and free access times at the museum.

“The commissioner wanted me to come out and be part of it,” Aaron said in an interview. “I became involved in it simply because he asked.”

Selig’s wife, Suzanne, is a museum trustee and former board member of the Milwaukee Art Museum. They have been involved in four of the luncheons.

“We are grateful for the ongoing support and generosity of Mr. Selig, whose vision and volunteerism has helped make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible,” said Amada Cruz, the museum’s Sybil Harrington Director and CEO.

The Seligs purchased a home in the Valley to live in part-time after Selig retired in 2015. He is one of four Jewish people to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s not shy about his religion, either. According to the Jewish Baseball Museum, he visited Israel in 1998, and he wrote a foreword to the book “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball.”

During his 22 years as commissioner, Selig, now MLB’s commissioner emeritus, increased league revenue by 400 percent and made changes such as implementing wild card play and expanding interleague scheduling.

At the luncheon, he was joined by Aaron, who played in the majors for 23 seasons and retired as the all-time leader in home runs (now second to Barry Bonds), RBIs and extra-base hits.

Tickets to meet and dine with the legends, and listen to their almost 40-minute discussion moderated by ESPN’s Michael Wilbon ranged from $300 to $15,000.

While the final tally of proceeds was not available as of press time, the museum had raised more than $200,000 before lunch began. Guests continued to donate and purchase raffle tickets throughout the afternoon.

They didn’t come for the raffle, though. They wanted to get insight from the pair of MLB legends.

Topics in the conversation between Selig and Aaron ranged from childhood stories to thoughts on today’s game. Selig called the idea to place a runner on second base in extra innings “absurd,” but thinks there are meaningful options to improve the pace of play in ways that wouldn’t “tamper with the game.”

Aaron spoke of past players he admires, including Sandy Koufax, perhaps the best-known Jewish athlete of all time. Koufax, who is the youngest person inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, made national headlines when he decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

In Koufax’s final four seasons, he went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA, winning three Cy Young Awards and an MVP. Throughout their careers, though, Aaron got the better of Koufax at the plate; according to ESPN, he hit .362 with seven home runs off the southpaw.

“Only because we faced each other a lot, really — but he was a great pitcher,” Aaron said. “I really enjoyed playing against him.”

Even the topic of steroids was touched upon, albeit briefly. Selig said that when Sen. John McCain of Arizona called him after a hearing on steroids in baseball, the then-commissioner asked if he could bring Hall of Fame players to the next hearing. One of those former players was Aaron.

“The thing about Henry, when you are friends with him, he never lets you down,” Selig said.

One night in Washington, D.C., the two were walking after dinner when Aaron asked Selig a question.

“He said to me — just like you’d say, ‘how are you?’ — ‘You know, when we were kids growing up, could you ever have dreamed that someday I’d break Babe Ruth’s record and you’d be the commissioner?’ ” Selig said.

They gave each other a look and a little shrug.

“And that was the end of the conversation.” JN

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