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.
By Glen Sparks
Happy birthday, Henry Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank turns 82 today. The great slugger is No. 2 on baseball’s all-time home run list, or still No. 1, depending on your point of view. This is a look at Aaron’s life and career in 10 bullet points:
- Born Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Ala., Aaron played 23 seasons in the major leagues (1954-76). He hit 755 career home runs, 733 in the National League for the Braves (both the Milwaukee and Atlanta versions) and 22 for the then-American League Milwaukee Brewers.
- The Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues signed Aaron on Nov. 20, 1951. He spent three months with the Clowns in 1952 and is the last Negro league veteran to appear on a Major League roster.
- Aaron never hit 50 home runs in one season. He topped out at 47 in 1971. He hit at least 40 home runs eight times and led the league in 1957 (44), 1963 (44), 1966 (44, again) and 1967 (39). Aaron smashed at least 30 home runs in 15 seasons, the only player to ever do that.
- The right-handed slugger finished in the top five in MVP voting eight times, but he won the award only once, in 1957. Besides belting 44 home runs that season, he led the N.L. with 132 RBI and finished fourth in batting average at .322.
- Curt Simmons, a long-time pitcher, once said this of Aaron: “Trying to sneak a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
- Aaron ranks first on the all-time list in RBI (2,297) and first in total bases (6,856). He led the league in RBI four times and drove in more than 100 runs 11 times. He is third all-time in hits (3,771) and games played (3,298).
- Aaron smacked home run No. 713 on Sept. 29, 1973, the next-to-last day of the season. He had to wait more than six months before tying Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714. That blast came April 4, 1974, off Cincinnati Reds hurler Jack Billingham at Riverfront Stadium. Four days later, in front of 53,775 fans at Atlanta’s Fulton-County Stadium, Hammerin’ Hank knocked No. 715 off Los Angeles Dodgers starter Al Downing.
- The Baseball Writers voted Aaron into the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, in 1982, with 97.8 percent of the vote. Only Ty Cobb had been elected to Cooperstown with a higher percentage (98.23 in 1936).
- MLB created the Hank Aaron Award in 1999 to honor the top hitter in each league. Later that year, Aaron was named to baseball’s All-Century team. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. Statues of Aaron stand outside Miller Park in Milwaukee and Turner Field in Atlanta.
- The San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds hit career home run No. 756 on Aug. 7, 2007, off the Washington Nationals’ Mike Bacsik, to break Aaron’s mark. Bonds retired with 762 homers … and with a cloud of suspicion all around him. How much help did Bonds get from performance-enhancing drugs? Too much, many observers say. In the minds of many, Aaron remains baseball’s true home-run king.