Like all of us, I was saddened with the news of Hank Aaron's passing.
The legendary slugger who is well known for breaking Babe Ruth's all time home run record, and becoming the Home Run king with 755. That record was later broken by Barry Bonds, although somewhat tainted. Many still consider Hank as the true Home Run king.
But he was more than that.
He was an icon, every bit as important as Jackie Robinson. He handled the pressure of his unprecedented run at 714 home runs with grace and pride. He withstood death threats buy the hundreds, from 'fans' who decried the fact that anyone, let alone a black man, would dare besmirch the Great Bambino's record.
Hank ended the 1973 season with 713 homers, 1 shy of Babe's magical number of 714. For years, baseball fans could roll that somehow lyrical number with ease. It was engrained in their psyche. One of baseball's calling cards. 714, 56, 2130, 4191. And now, one of those numbers was in jeopardy of being replaced.
All winter, Hank had to ponder the upcoming season. I would imagine a good deal of anticipation mixed with a semblance of fear. Fan mail, interview requests, demands from media from around the world helped feed the frenzy of that off-season.
Not only did Hank receive death threats, his family received them too. Even members of the media following the chase received them as well. There is a rumor that Atlanta Journal's sports editor, Lewis Grizzard, had secretly written an obituary for Hank Aaron in case the unimaginable were to happen.
The Braves were scheduled to open the season in Cincinnati, and the team decided to announce that they were going to sit Hank, for fear that the record breaking homer would occur on the road, depriving the Atlanta fans of witnessing the feat firsthand. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to allow that, and instructed the Braves to play Aaron in at least two of the three games, unless he was injured.
Aaron did play in the opener, a Friday, and hit a three-run homer in the top of the first inning off of Jack Billingham, to tie Ruth. Bowie Kuhn was on hand to present Hank with a trophy. And Hank then played in the Sunday game, but went hitless.
The irony of Hank hitting the tying homer in Cincinnati is a sweet one. It was against the Reds that he made his major league debut in 1954, facing left-hander Joe Nuxhall, who would spend many years in the Reds broadcast booth.
He earned his 3,000th hit in Cincinnati, with Reds outfielder Pete Rose on the field during that event.
And the 714th homer was called by Marty Brennaman of the Reds, in his first game as a Reds broadcaster, and who would spend the next 45 years as a member of the Reds broadcast team.
It was against the Dodgers, on opening night in Atlanta that made history.
In the bottom of the fourth, with the Braves behind 3-1, Hank took a 1-0 Al Downing fastball deep into the Atlanta night. Actually deep into the Braves bullpen, where the Braves bullpen crew were spread out ten feet apart to try and catch the historic ball.
Will Dodger left-fielder Bill Buckner futilely attempting to climb the fence to grab the ball, it cleared the outfield wall by a good fifteen feet, and found the glove of Braves pitcher Tom House.
As one can imagine, the hometown crowd went wild. A few daring fans ran onto the field to congratulate "The Hammer" as he rounded the bases, a few catching the slugger by surprise. Aaron's father was on the field and waiting at home plate for Hank to finish rounding the bases, after Darrell Evans who walked before Hank's at bat.
Hank was met at the plate by his teammates, including Dusty Baker, who is the answer to the trivia question of 'who was on deck when Hank hit 715' and his manager, Eddie Mathews, who was a teammate with Hank for many years. The two combined for 863 homers as teammates in Milwaukee/Atlanta from 1954 through 1966.
Hank's mother made her way onto the field as well, and met Hank's embrace.
Hank addressed the crowd, saying ,"I'm glad this is all over."
The Dodger broadcast featured the legendary Vin Scully. As the Dodger cameras panned the crowd and the scene, Vin dropped this commentary:
"What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron ... And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months."
Hank handled the incredible pressure with class and dignity. His steady unwavering demeanor belied how much he may have been enduring. He was a role model to many, and used his position as such to try to make a difference in many lives.
Traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season, Hank's return to Milwaukee was a huge success with the fans. Hank retired after 1976 season.
Bob Uecker would talk of Aaron's wrists, how baseball men would speak of his wrists like men spoke of Betty Grable's legs. The were thick, but quick. It was said that Hank could wait just a touch longer on a pitch before 'pulling the trigger' and firing those wrists through the strike zone.
And if you watch film clips of Hank, you'll notice that he is a front foot hitter, which you don't see much anymore. His back foot is off the ground as he makes contact. Clemente was the same, as was Mays. Just an observation I have made, not sure if it is relevant to today's game or not.
At the time of his retirement, he was:
- All time leader in home runs (755)
- All time leader in runs batted in (2,297)(still holds this record)
- Second in hits (3,771)
- All time leader in games played (3,298)
- All time leader in at bats (12,364)
- All time leader in total bases (6,856) (still holds this record)