Wednesday, April 09, 2014

On 40th anniversary of No. 715, Aaron remains true home run king

By Tom Verducci
April 8, 2014

Photo: Neil Leifer/SI

Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was drained of more than half its fans and all of its tension on what had been one of the most famous rainy nights in Georgia. In his previous at-bat, Hank Aaron had ended the 53-year reign of Babe Ruth as baseball's Home Run King. Aaron, the newly crowned, the beloved teammate the Braves called "Supe," which they derived from "superstar," still a new and hip appellation in 1974, made his way to the on-deck circle. That's when teammate Ralph Garr called to him.

"Come on, Supe," Garr said. "Break Hank Aaron's record."

Aaron liked the sound of that. He was 40 years old and playing his 21st major league season, and the chasing of Ruth over the previous few years so wore him down that when he stepped to a microphone immediately after hitting 715 the one summation that came to his lips was, "Thank God it's over." The anxiety, much of it derived from the racists who made threats against him, at last had fallen away.

The apostrophe is the most powerful punctuation mark in grammar. It is far more muscular than the exclamation point, which has become so diluted by overuse in digital platforms that people feel compelled to use it in triplicate, if not greater multiples, to give it heft. The quotation mark needs a partner. The period is a lonesome little dot at ground level, a loose penny on a sidewalk. The semi-colon suffers from a confused personality and keeps showing up in the wrong places. But the apostrophe is elegant and kingly. It uses its graceful, airborne curve to define unquestioned ownership. It anoints possession.

"Hank Aaron's record."

What Hank forged and what Garr spoke exactly 40 years ago today -- April 8, 1974 -- may have met its official demise in 2007, when Barry Bonds hit home run number 756, surpassing the 755 Aaron took to retirement in 1976. But this is a case in which the unofficial trumps the official. It is the revolt of logic. What belongs to Bonds in the official sense still belongs to Aaron in all other ways, most especially in the manner of fair play as the bedrock of sport. Forty years later, it remains Hank Aaron's record.

Two months ago, the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America honored Aaron and the man who threw the pitch for home run number 715, Al Downing, a classy gentleman and a former 20-game winner. After Downing spoke first, Aaron pulled him back to the podium.

"The pitch that he threw me that night -- if I can remember, it's been a long time, forty-some years -- it was supposed to be a screwball," Aaron said.

"It was a sinker," Downing said.


"Didn't sink."

"I was trying to get it before it sunk."

"You got it."

The two proud men were connected again.

No other night in the history of baseball is more deeply embedded in American cultural history than April 8, 1974. The nights that Fisk waved it fair, Buckner missed the grounder, Gibson took Eckersley deep and Ripken broke Gehrig's record are forever iconic, too. But 1974 was just 10 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and baseball still was the undisputed national pastime that commanded the attention of America. More than half the televisions in the country were tuned to the previous World Series, contested between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Mets, even though four of the seven games were day games. No sport was bigger than baseball, and no name was bigger than Ruth's. So big was the potential of a new home run record that NBC, which had the rights to Monday Night Baseball in the summer, scrapped its regular Monday night spring programming and broadcast the game against top 10 CBS shows Maude and Rhoda. The game delivered a strong 22.3 rating and 36 share. (No World Series game has seen that kind of a share since 1997 Game 7.)

It was 9:07 p.m. ET when Downing threw that famous pitch. Three future winners of the Ford Frick Award, given by the Baseball Hall of Fame for broadcasting excellence, called the home run: Curt Gowdy for NBC, Vin Scully for the Dodgers and Milo Hamilton for the Braves.

Scully, ever the master, gave the moment 25 seconds of appropriate silence. Then, as he always does, he found words in an instant that hold their beauty for eternity:

"What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly Henry Aaron."

You wanted to add an "amen."

What makes Hank Aaron's record all the more special to a baseball fan is that it was entirely above reproach. Ruth never played at night, west of St. Louis or after integration. Bonds was a serial user of performance-enhancing drugs, as so well defined by Game of Shadows. The apologia of the drug-enhanced era tries awkwardly and shamefully to cast Aaron as a product of the era of amphetamines, as if there is any comparison. For the record, Aaron wrote in his biography, I Had a Hammer, co-written with Lonnie Wheeler, that he tried a "greenie" once. It happened during a slump in 1968 when a teammate gave him one to try.

"When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack," Aaron wrote. "It was a stupid thing to do."
At the BBWAA dinner, Aaron said, "If a person wants something bad enough, he works very hard for it."

Then he told a story about Mickey Owen, the former Dodgers catcher known infamously for his dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series. Owen was Aaron's manager in 1953 in winter ball in Puerto Rico, where the Braves wanted the infielder to learn how to play the outfield. Owen, Aaron said, threw batting practice to him in the broiling heat for 14 consecutive days, each time with the same routine: 20 minutes hitting to rightfield, 20 minutes hitting to centerfield and 20 minutes to leftfield. And when they were done, Aaron would say to Owen, "I'd like to hit some more." And Owen, then 37 years old, would throw some more.

"I would have to give him all the credit for my career," Aaron said. "If not for him I don't think I would have had that kind of career."

Graciousness always was an Aaron hallmark, as much as the home runs. The home run record was indeed so important in society that it caused most everything else about Aaron to be underestimated, including his all-around skills as a hitter. As Wheeler noted in the book, Aaron amassed so many more total bases than anybody who ever played this game that he literally is miles ahead of the pack. You could give Stan Musial, who is second on the total-bases list, 12 miles worth of total bases and he still would not catch Aaron.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds broke Aaron's record in 2007 with far fewer people paying attention.
Brad Mangin/SI

By 2007, when Bonds came along as the inauthentic heir, America, television, baseball and the concept of "hard work" alone as the path to achievement all were very different from Aaron's day. Bonds made a mockery of baseball and a wonder of pharmaceuticals. It wasn't just that the older he got the better he got; he got cartoonishly better and bigger in advancing baseball age. Until 2001, nobody 36 or older ever had slugged better than .731, the mark by Ted Williams in 1957. But Bonds did it not just once, not just twice, not just three times, but four times -- and by a lot. When he was 39 years old Bonds slugged .812 -- a preposterous level considering nobody else that age ever has slugged better than .584.

Through 1998, Bonds' age 33 season, he was headed toward greatness. The similarity scores at list his top four doppelgangers at that age as Frank RobinsonKen Griffey Jr., Duke Snider and Vladimir Guerrero -- four guys who wound up with an average of 518 home runs. That wasn't enough for Bonds. He would choose to join the not-so-secret society of PED users to achieve more, though to this day he and his trainer, Greg Anderson, find the choice to be unspeakable.

Bonds shows up nowhere on the top 10 list of most home runs through age 33. But after that his career reads like a work of fiction. Bonds hit more home runs just after age 33 (388) than Hall of Fame slugger Jim Rice hit over his entire career. Bonds hit 70 more home runs after age 33 than Aaron hit after 33 -- and 90 more than everybody else in history. It was too good to be true, which is why when Bonds hit number 756 it was at best a curiosity akin to sawing a woman in half (it required suspending logic to enjoy) and at worst one of the game's saddest travesties.

Most people fell in the vastness of the middle: they didn't care. The telecast of home run 756 in San Francisco generated only a 1.1 rating. Aaron stayed away; so did Bud Selig. The commissioner had a legitimate and appropriate excuse: he happened to be in New York to talk to Sen. George Mitchell's investigators about steroid use in baseball. Anderson couldn't be there, either. His excuse was even more unassailable: He was in prison, choosing to be incarcerated rather than answer questions from a federal grand jury about Bonds' drug use.
The postgame news conference was uncomfortable. The line of questioning was obvious: How could anybody accept this record as legitimate? Bonds was a hostile witness.

"This record is not tainted at all, at all, period," he said. "You guys can say whatever you want."

Somebody thought it was a good time to ask him about his friend Anderson. Bonds was in no mood to play along. He called it "just another negative question" in a roomful of negativity.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver captured the eternal emptiness of the record when he said in advance of 756, "It's a shame that after Bonds breaks the record the conversation will go, 'Barry is the all-time home run hitter, but . . .' This record deserves more than that. With Henry Aaron, there were no buts."

Make no mistake: Bonds owns the official home run record. Seven sixty-two does look and smell like 9.79, the world record time in the 100-meter dash that Ben Johnson posted in the 1988 Olympics, but it cannot and should not be wiped out like 9.79 was then. Bonds did hit more home runs than anybody else. He mastered better than others the dark arts in a dark era that has plenty of blame to go around.

Bonds may have zoomed past Aaron, but he also elevated Aaron. Forty years from that night in Atlanta, Hank and his record are more admirable than ever. The power of the apostrophe remains. Bonds has more home runs, but true greatness and authenticity belong to Hank Aaron's record.

This week Orioles slugger Chris Davis told USA Today the obvious: that "Bonds was a great player for a long time. But it's hard to say that Hank Aaron's record isn't the legitimate home run record because of the allegations, the accusations regarding Bonds."

It really wasn't much news at all -- more a statement of the common wisdom regarding what people still know as "Hank Aaron's record."

When Aaron and Downing reunited in New York, they stood next to one another at the microphone and were flanked on the dais by greats such as Sandy KoufaxMariano RiveraMiguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw. It was one of the greatest assemblages of baseball royalty since the initial Hall of Fame class of 1939 gathered for a group portrait. Aaron stood out among such legends. Aaron and Downing made for an especially sweet picture of friendship and dignity. Once again, Aaron found just the right words at the right moment.

"But he really was a terrific pitcher," Aaron said. "I just want to say everything was fine, really. I hit the home run and we went about our business the right way."

You wanted to add an "amen."

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