- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

The slender right-handed hitter stood at the plate, bat cocked, and awaited the 1-0 pitch. The lefty pitcher delivered, and the batter’s smooth, compact swing sent the ball soaring toward left-center field as 53,755 onlookers rose in unison.

“That ball is gonna be … outta here!” Atlanta Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton yelled. “It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!”

The date was April 8, 1974, and Aaron ? aka “Bad Henry” and “The Hammer” ? had eclipsed Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old record for career home runs. Nowadays, with Barry Bonds approaching Aaron’s final 755 and steroid suspicions filling the air, the subject is on everyone’s mind again. But if Bonds surpasses Hank’s total, his record might come with asterisk attached.

No such stigma existed when Aaron took Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers deep in the Braves’ 1974 home opener before a record crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves would finish with an 88-74 record that season, 14 games behind the first-place Dodgers in the National League West, but for one night they were squarely in the baseball spotlight because of Aaron.

At 40, Aaron was nearing the end of a big league career that began in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves. Quiet and undramatic, playing far from major media markets, he had never entranced the public like fellow stars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Consistency was Aaron’s thing. He never hit more than 47 homers ? but he slammed more than 40 in eight seasons and more than 30 in 15. When he retired in 1976 after two seasons back in Milwaukee with the Brewers, he ranked among the all-time leaders in RBI, total bases, extra-base hits, at-bats, runs and games played.

Imagine if he had used steroids.

Today a ballplayer’s race doesn’t matter, but 31 years ago some old-timers found it distasteful that a black man was crowding the Babe. Aaron was forced to travel with a bodyguard for two years as he neared Ruth’s record. In the summer of 1973, he was receiving 3,000 letters a day, many from racists.

“You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. … My gun is watching your every black move,” one said.

And another: “Dear Henry Aaron, how about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

How shameful can some “fans” get?

Aaron finished 1973 with a remarkable 40 homers in just 392 at-bats and a total of 713, leaving admirers and detractors alike hanging. Then on the first day of the ‘74 season, he connected off Jack Billingham of the Cincinnati Reds, tying the Babe.

Braves manager Eddie Mathews, Aaron’s long-time slugging partner in Milwaukee, announced he would bench his star for the next two games of the series so he could attempt to break the record in Atlanta, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron in at least one of the games or risk “serious consequences.”

After sitting out the second game in Cincinnati, Aaron played 6 innings in the third but fanned twice and grounded out. That got everybody to Monday night’s home opener with national television cameras on the scene.

Baseball players try to treat every game the same, and Aaron looked decidedly uncomfortable while being escorted onto the field by majorettes while balloons rose into the air. A massive map of the United States was painted on the center-field grass, and on it Aaron’s friends, relatives and employers hailed him during a lavish pregame show. Guests included entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, plus Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. A high school band, college choir and the Braves’ Chief Noc-A-Homa mascot added to the fuss and feathers.

As he waited on the dugout steps for the game to start, Aaron told his pal, Dusty Baker, “I’m gonna get this over in a hurry.” But when he came to bat against Downing in the second inning, Hank never took the bat off his shoulder. He walked as Downing pitched carefully and the crowd booed lustily, eventually scoring the 2,063rd run of his career to break Mays’ National League record.

Now it was the fourth inning. With a man on first after an error, Downing’s first pitch hit the dirt in front of the plate. His second landed on the turf in the Braves’ bullpen beyond the outfield fence.

“It was a fastball down the middle of the upper part of the plate,” said Downing, who would finish his career with a 123-107 record over 17 seasons in the major leagues. “I was trying to get it down, but I didn’t. He’s a great hitter. When he gets the pitch he’s looking for, chances are he’s gonna hit it pretty good.”

The ball was retrieved in the bullpen by pitcher Tom House, who then raced to home plate to join the celebration. When he handed it to Aaron, the man of the hour was typically laconic, saying only, “Thanks, kid.”

Aaron toured the bases calmly, gaining an escort from two uninhibited young fans as he rounded second base and a huge “715” flashed on the scoreboard. At the plate, he was greeted by teammates who hoisted him to their shoulders. He shook hands with his father, Herbert, and embraced his mother, Estella, as Downing and the Dodgers’ infielders moved to the sideline.

Also congratulating Aaron was former New York Giants star Monte Irvin, representing Commissioner Kuhn, who was irresponsibly absent because of what he called “a prior commitment” to attend a game in Cleveland. When Kuhn’s name was announced, the crowd booed loudly and rightfully. Finally, after an 11-minute delay, the game resumed.

During the game, Aaron took a call from President Richard Nixon. And Ruth’s widow, Claire, was gracious enough to send a telegram saying, “I know the Babe was rooting for Henry.”

During a postgame press conference, Aaron was characteristically modest. “Now I can consider myself one of the best,” he said. “Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game ? Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson ? but I think I could fit in there somewhere. I just thank God it’s over.”

Had he so desired, Hank also could have given thanks for the quick wrists and keen eyesight that enabled a 190-pound man to outslug all of the game’s other great power hitters.

After ending his playing career, Aaron spent several decades as an executive with the Braves and Turner Broadcasting and often was mentioned in speculation that a former player should be considered as commissioner. But today, at 71, his single greatest achievement remains No. 715.

After hitting it, Aaron told the media mob, “Right now, it feels just like another home run.”

It wasn’t.

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