Hank Aaron: Still The Hitter Of Record

By Larry Stone
Updated: May 8, 2006

Hank Aaron (circa 1974)

Hank Aaron (circa 1974)

SEATTLE — Provided his body doesn’t fall apart completely — no guarantee, judging by the pain that simple acts of running and swinging seem to cause — Barry Bonds will catch and surpass Babe Ruth’s home-run total any day now.

And despite my strong belief in the illegitimacy of that achievement, I feel no sense of moral outrage over the passing of the Bambino.

For me, it’s not about Babe Ruth at all. It’s about Hank Aaron.

Hank is the record-holder with 755 home runs, in case you forgot. Hank is the man who ran down Babe Ruth more than 30 years ago, in 1974, when it did really mean something — when, in fact, it meant everything.

He did so with abiding grace and class, in the face of the virulent racism that stalked him while he stalked Ruth and the most majestic number in American sports: 714.

While I fully recognize Ruth’s unique spot in baseball — and American — culture, he’s more the stuff of legend and lore than a player I can truly relate to in any meaningful way.

Hank Aaron is a whole different story. To those of my generation, the 40-somethings whose baseball consciousness began in the 1960s, Hank Aaron is a seminal figure. A flesh-and-blood hero, not a cartoonish figure from a bygone era.

For me, it’s even more personal than that. My family moved from California to Alabama in 1971, and I found myself smack in the middle of Aaron territory. Though I was a huge Dodgers fan, I got caught up in the home-run chase; in the Deep South, it was inescapable.

If there was a racist tinge to the spectacle — and, of course, there was — I was either too young or too naïve to notice; in cosmopolitan Huntsville, Ala., where scientists came from around the country and world to work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, all I remember are Aaron zealots like myself.

When Aaron closed in on Ruth in 1973, I followed the race with the same fervor that I imagine kids in St. Louis and Chicago followed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Or even that Bonds’ loyalists — I hear that some do exist — will treat Bonds’ run on Aaron, if circumstances allow him to make one.

I listened each night to the Braves games on a transistor radio, not letting myself go to sleep until Aaron’s final at-bat. I built my own shrine to Aaron in my room — posters, memorabilia, baseball cards, programs. I even logged his home runs on a chart that was printed in my local newspaper, the Huntsville Times.

I badgered my parents to get us tickets to the final homestand in 1973, figuring that it was criminal to be that close to history and not try to witness it. And so they bought tickets to the final game of the 1973 season, and we made the four-hour drive to Atlanta to watch the Braves play the Astros on Sept. 30.

As fate would have it, Aaron hit No. 713 against Houston on Sept. 29. This would be his final chance to catch Ruth before the long winter hiatus. I was wild with excitement over the chance to witness No. 714.

Though some details of that game have faded with time, others remain vivid.

I remember a large crowd at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (the Internet tells me the attendance was 40,517 — not a sellout), and all of us standing and cheering each time Aaron came up. I remember my parents trying to record each Aaron at-bat with our primitive movie camera (the fuzzy, jumpy results are still in the family archives).

And, I would have sworn until Friday, I remember Hank getting four hits, all singles, to bring his final average for the season to .300.

(That latter memory is apparently as fuzzy as the camera images. Checking the wonderful Web site retrosheet.org, which has box scores of virtually every game ever played, I learned that Aaron actually went 3 for 4, and finished at .301; to all those hundreds of people I inadvertently misled over the years, I apologize).

Though we didn’t see the record-tying homer, it was still an exhilarating occasion, remaining the most memorable game I’ve ever witnessed as a fan. And when Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day of 1974 in Cincinnati, and broke it four days later in Atlanta off the Dodgers’ Al Downing, I was riveted to the television, of course.

I did my own victory lap around the living room as Aaron trotted around the bases, accompanied by those two baseline intruders that have become so familiar from thousands of replays.

Waiting to embrace Aaron at the plate was his mother, who said later that she hugged him so that if anyone planned to shoot her son — Aaron had received a myriad of death threats — they would have to shoot her, too.

I’m an Aaron guy, through and through. Always will be. I’ve had the chance to meet him several times over the years and have never been disappointed.

Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear over Bonds’ 714th and 715th home runs. But check back if he reaches 754.