“He was our defender. If you were wrong, he would tell you. If you had a legitimate beef, he would back you. Ralph and I were with him every day. Half of what I got about taking care of players came from how Hank took care of us.”
Aaron finished his career with 755 homers, a mark topped by Barry Bonds’ 762. Bonds’ career was tarnished by steroids allegations.
Aaron was efficient as he put the record chase behind him at the start of the 1974 season. He tied Ruth’s record with his first swing of the season at Cincinnati, against Jack Billingham. Four days later, he set the record with his first swing of the year at home.
“That I can remember like it was yesterday,” Baker said. “It was a cold, cold night in April. Hank told me, ‘I’m going to get this over with now.’ He knew every pitch that was coming. He had total recall of pitch sequences. He was as smart as they came.”
Aaron confirmed Baker’s tale on Monday: “I think that was right. I think I made that remark and made it to Dusty maybe three or four times. I just felt within myself that eventually before the night was over I was going to hit a home run.”
The homer was a defining moment for such young kids as Terry Pendleton, who was 13 and dreaming of playing in the major leagues.
Like other fans across the country, Pendleton rushed to his TV to watch every at-bat as NBC broke into its normal prime-time programming to follow the home-run chase.
“I still feel so fortunate to have seen it on TV,” said Pendleton, the Braves‘ first-base coach and the NL MVP with Atlanta in 1991. “What a thrill and it meant so much to black kids like me hoping to play baseball. I still am amazed every time I get to talk to Hank. … I don’t think players today understand what he went through and what it all meant to people back then.”
For Aaron, the home-run record was not his greatest achievement. He takes the most pride in holding the record with 2,297 RBIs and never having 100 strikeouts in a season.
“There was absolutely no time that anybody could say, ‘well he hit a lot of home runs but he struck out a lot of times,’” Aaron said. “That was not to be. That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, to go to the plate and strike out once or twice and not be able to make contact.”
Aaron joked he long ago learned he no longer can swing a bat or throw a ball very far. But he said he’ll cherish the memories with friends during the anniversary celebration.
“I’m going to enjoy myself as much as I can,” he said.