By Glen Sparks
Coach gathered everyone together after a tough round of hitting and fielding practice.
We were the minor Dodgers of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Little League, a group of boys with big league dreams. We took practice seriously. Someday, baseball would need us to hit line drives and pitch two-hitters in front of big crowds.
“Go home and watch Henry Aaron hit a home run,” Coach said.
It was April 8, 1974. Aaron came into the season with 713 home runs, one short of Babe Ruth’s all-time mark, the greatest record in sports. The Atlanta Braves slugger tied the Babe on April 4, in his first at-bat of ’74. Hitting clean-up, he belted a Jack Billingham pitch out of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.
The hate mail had been pouring in for more than year. Some people did not want Aaron to break the record. They made that clear in the most vile ways. Even death threats popped up. Supposedly, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution prepared an Aaron obituary story just in case.
“All that hatred left a deep scar on me,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography I Had a Hammer.
I knew about Aaron. I had a few of his baseball cards. He was a great baseball player, I knew that. But, I didn’t know about that hatred.
Hammerin’ Hank, as some people called him, enjoyed a career for the ages. He hit at least 38 home runs in a season 11 times. In 1973, at age 39, he belted 40 homers in just 392 at-bats.
Coach drove me home from practice that day. I sprinted up the steps to my home and opened the door.
“He just did it!” my mom said.
OK, so I got to see history on instant replay. It was still good. Aaron belted a 1-0 pitch off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing (No. 44, just like Aaron) in the fourth inning. The ball sailed toward the Braves’ bullpen in left-center field. Dodgers’ outfielder Bill Buckner nearly climbed the fence to catch the drive, but came up short. Tom House, an Atlanta reliever, snagged the ball in the ‘pen.
Aaron, who would finish his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, circled the bases. You’ve probably seen the video dozens of times. A crowd of nearly 54,000 stands up to cheer. Some fans rush onto the field. A couple of college students meet Aaron halfway for a few moments. Aaron flicks his elbows at them, but that’s all. He keeps rounding the bases.
Aaron’s mom and dad also ran onto the field. Later, his mom said she wanted to protect her son. Fortunately, a celebration ruled the night. Baseball had a new home run king. I thought that was pretty cool.