This is how I remember the greatest player in the history of the game. Let’s be honest, Ted Williams is the greatest hitter. But, as much as I love Teddy Ballgame, Henry Aaron is the very greatest. And, yes, I was one of those kids, leaning over the fence getting an autograph. My grandparents lived maybe five miles from where the Braves trained in the spring. The moment I hit town, I would borrow my grandmother’s car and head to the ballpark, to watch the Braves practice and Hankie Baby, as my mother called him, take batting practice. He would then come over and visit with those of us hanging over the dugout. There was no temper, arrogance, or narcissism – just Henry Aaron, gentleman and all around nice guy.
I know exactly where I was at one of the most historic moments of my life – jumping up and down and screaming until I almost lost my voice – and I was at home, standing in front of the television. It was a work of art, and a moment of sheer beauty. I saw him hit #701, and something like maybe #711. Like everyone else, I was calculating the pace he would hit them, wanting to be there for that magical moment. I still have all the ticket stubs, somewhere, along with quite a bit of memorabilia from that magical time.
It was magical because of the quality of the man, humble, decent, soft-spoken, incredibly brave (literally), who knew his life was being threatened, but he kept on keeping on. He went about his job with grace and poise. An example of how someone should behave under pressure.
Al Downing wore #44 because of his hero.
“… As the fans cheered wildly, Aaron’s parents ran onto the field as well. Braves announcer Milo Hamilton, calling the game on WSB radio, described the scene as Aaron broke the record: “Henry Aaron, in the second inning walked and scored. He’s sittin’ on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be-eee… Outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron! The fireworks are going. Henry Aaron is coming around third. His teammates are at home plate. And listen to this crowd!”…”
There are two versions of the moment. The first is the one I remember, legendary Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton was beside himself. Then there is the Vince Scully version.
“...At the end of the 1973 season, Aaron received a plaque from the US Postal Service for receiving more mail (930,000 pieces) than any person excluding politicians. Aaron received an outpouring of public support in response to the bigotry. Newspaper cartoonist Charles Schulz created a series of Peanuts strips printed in August 1973 in which Snoopy attempts to break the Ruth record, only to be besieged with hate mail. Lucy says in the August 11 strip, “Hank Aaron is a great player…but you! If you break Babe Ruth’s record, it’ll be a disgrace!” Coincidentally, Snoopy was only one home run short of tying the record (and finished the season as such when Charlie Brown got picked off during Snoopy’s last at-bat), and as it turned out, Aaron finished the 1973 season one home run short of Ruth…”
I don’t think people understand the abject love, respect, and adulation those of us who lived those magical moments have for Henry Aaron. I saw him hit so many out of the park. I bawl every time I see him these days.