Sunday January 24, 2021
Henry Aaron (1934-2021)
The greatest season-ending cliffhanger of my childhood was not “Who Shot J.R.?” from “Dallas” but the finale to the 1973 regular baseball season when Hank Aaron finished one homerun shy of Babe Ruth's hallowed 714 mark. I was 10.
In my fifth grade class, my friend Dan and I were resurrecting a stapled-together magazine we'd done in third grade called “Kids Life,” and in the first issue in the fall of '73 I wrote a two-page article on Henry Aaron. Here it is, mistakes and all:
Hank Aaron By Erik Lundegaard
Hank is closing up on Babe Ruth's 714 HR's. Hank ended this season with 713, one short of Babe Ruth. Near the middle of the season, some pitchers were going to try to let Hank Aaron get his 715th HR off of them. When Aaron broke into the majors he batted cross handed. When Aaron hit his 700th HR of his career, he didn't even get congratulations from Bowie Kuhn. Hank leads every player All-time for total bases. Not many people thought Hank would break Ruth's record until 1971. Aaron has also led the NL in batting twice. (1956-1959) Hank has only led NL in HR's 4 times. Aaron has also been MVP once. Aaron hit 40 HR's at the age of 39. Aaron gets most of his power from his wrists. No wonder opposing pitchers call him Bad Henry
Most of the information must've come from biographies I'd read (“Hammerin' Hank of the Braves”), general baseball books (“Heroes of the Major Leagues,” “Baseball Stars of ...”), as well as “Baseball Digest,” my off-season Bible. The cover headline, meanwhile, was taken from the Bill Slayback song, “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry,” which I believe played on “Game of the Week” a few times in '73. I loved it. Even without YouTube I could sing you the chorus:
Move over, Babe, here comes Henry
And he's swinging mean
Move over, Babe, Hank's hit another
He'll break that 714
It's interesting I don't mention race in any of the above, because I knew he was getting hate mail and death threats. The newspapers talked about it. “Peanuts” talked about it. Did the first glimmers of America's racist history come to me through baseball? “Dad, why don't they want Rod Carew to get married?” “Why were there no Black players before Jackie Robinson? ”Why do people want to kill Hank Aaron?“
That was the worst part of the cliffhanger: Not the six months between seasons—an eternity when you're in fifth grade—but the question: Would Hank Aaron live through it? We weren't the only ones asking. According to biographer Howard Bryant, Aaron ”believed he would be assassinated in the offseason. He had received enough letters to convince him so. He received death threats from 1972 to 1974—all for doing what America asked of him.“
Dan and I wound up making about 30 issues of ”Kids Life“ that schoolyear, and as I look over them I can see my different passions flowering: now football, now Marvel Comics, now politics. But always baseball. That spring I did a special BASEBALL! issue, with the exclamation point of the logo a fat baseball bat, and on the cover, via my older brother Chris, a sketch of a baseball-clad Richard Nixon, not long for the presidency, swinging and missing. The issue included an in-depth, two-page quiz, predictions for the '74 season, and another bio. Or the same one.
Hank was born on February 5th 1934 in Mobile Alabama. When Hank was in High School, he playd for a black team and he batted cross-handed. So his manager made him change but when his back was facing the dugout he would swich hands. Either way he batted great and helped the Braves to win the World Series in 1956 [sic] and in 1958 he lead them to the pennant but they failed to win the Series. Aaron has been underrate al lhis life until about 1970. He has become a great athlete. The chances for him to break Ruth's record are 99 to 1 his favor.
Was I only reading about Henry Aaron during that long Minnesota winter? He's in the quiz, too (”EASY QUESTIONS: Who is no. 44 for the Braves?“) and in the crossword puzzle (”Where Aaron was born“).
For the curious, Aaron hit No. 713 in the second-to-last game of the '73 season, after which he came up five more times. He didn't exactly wilt under the pressure, going 4-5 with four singles—a good reminder that along with the homerun record, he retired with the second-most hits in baseball history (he's now third) and the most total bases (he's still first—by a long shot). My favorite baseball factoid: If you turn all of Hank Aaron's 755 homeruns into strikeouts, he would still have more hits than Babe Ruth and fewer strikeouts than Reggie Jackson. Astonishing.
Once the '74 season began, he didn't make us wait long. It was like he wanted to end it as soon as possible:
He couldn't have done it better. He tied the record on his first swing (six years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), then broke it the following Monday, at home, and on national television, so all of us could watch. I remember being very excited, and then very, very embarrassed when the two white college kids ran onto the field to pat his back. At first, I think I thought they were going to attack him. Dude was getting death threats, dudes! When it was revealed to be just back pats, that felt awful, too. It's his moment, not yours! But apparently he didn't mind. He was mostly worried about the trouble they would get into. He's been reunited with them a few times since. He was always gracious about it.
Did something break in him during that time? He was coming off a 40-homer season, and he hit seven in April; but then the cliff: just 2 HRs each in May, June and July; four in August, three in September. He'd hit at least 20 homers every season since 1955, and he did it again in '74 but just barely. He hit No. 20 on the last day of the season and in his last at-bat in an Atlanta uniform. That off-season, he was traded to the Brewers and the city where he'd started, Milwaukee, where he hit 12 in '75 and 10 in '76. I got to see him hit No. 738. He made 755 a magical number.
In a way he made 713 a magical number—at least to me: that long winter when he was sitting on it, when I was reading and regurgitating his story, it became imprinted on me. I remember a game at the Kingdome in '96, '97, when someone either asked me for the time or I noticed it, but out loud I said: ”7:13.“ And then as a joke: ”Time for a homerun.“ The next pitch, Alex Rodriguez hit one into the left-field bleachers and the guy in front of us turned around and stared at me like I was Nostradamus. I shrugged. ”713. Hank Aaron. C'mon.“
But yes, something in him broke during that long winter. From his New York Times obit:
In the early 1990s, he told the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, ”April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.“
”It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,“ he said. ”My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.“
Former baseball commissioner Bartlett Giamatti once said that baseball is designed to break your heart, but it's not always baseball. In the scheme of things, it's rarely baseball.
Henry Aaron died late last week at age 86. I got the news something was wrong via Joe Posnanski's Twitter feed. Just this cry:
Encomiums and remembrances have been pouring in ever since. This morning my friend Ben sent me Douglas Brinkley's piece in the Times, about what Aaron meant to him, about his final interview with him in November—just before the election. You can sense his gentleness. I like what he says about Jimmy Carter. And they go over it all again: the inspiration of Jackie Robinson, leaving to play Negro League Baseball with $2 in his suitcase, the '57 World Series, the 714 chase and the pain of it. They talk about friends who have passed and how hard it is to process. ”It's sad,“ Aaron says. ”But I guess in some ways, you know, you come here, and you have to leave. God doesn't expect you to stay all the time."