Monday, July 23, 2007

Whenever Barry Bonds slugs home run No. 756, it won’t match the excitement and applause that surrounded the previous record-setting swat 33 years ago.

It won’t even come close.

For one thing, Bonds’ epochal dinger will be tainted by the widely held view he has used performance-enhancing substances in his pursuit.

For another, his public persona is that of an arrogant grump who puts himself, his problems and his pouts ahead of everything else. True, many Giants fans adore him. Outside of San Francisco, he’s baseball’s version of Public Enemy No. 1.

But Henry Aaron, the current record holder, deserved and received respect from most quarters as he prepared to batter and better Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old standard of 714 on the evening of April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Unlike Bonds, Aaron was a quiet man who let his achievements speak for themselves. Which they did, loudly. Especially, when the magic moment came.

Aaron, a slender right-handed hitter, stood at the plate, bat cocked and awaited the 1-0 pitch. The lefty pitcher delivered, and Hank’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!”

Aaron took Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers deep in the Braves’ 1974 home opener before a record crowd at the Stadium. 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 40 or more in eight seasons and 30 or more 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 33 years ago a few misguided people 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 of a sickeningly racist nature.

Aaron finished the 1973 season with a remarkable 40 homers in just 392 at-bats and a total of 713, leaving both admirers and detractors hanging. On the first day of the 1974 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 6½ 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, 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.

Now it was the fourth inning. With a man on first after an error, Downing’s first pitch to Aaron 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 southpaw 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 inexcusably and 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.

Soon after, 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.”

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 73, 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.

c This article previously appeared in a different form.

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