ATLANTA – Henry Aaron has little in this life to envy, but he does look up to musicians just a little. Because the song never dies.
“I think some of the things I accomplished in baseball are going to be remembered for a long time,” he said recently. “But I don’t think it has any resemblance to what a musician is.
“Every Christmas I love to hear Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole has been dead for a long time. I don’t know that baseball players, whatever they do, are the same. The game just turns over so easily and records are made to be broken. You may do something good today and someone comes along and does something better. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Ah, but with apologies to all great baritones, living and dead, there is the rare baseball hit just as enduring as any Billboard one.
For as every Yuletide is time to hear the scratchy renditions of “Silent Night” so is every April 8 the time to appreciate the night Aaron re-wrote baseball canon.
Forty years ago Tuesday, in what is now a Turner Field parking lot, he launched home run No. 715, breaking Babe Ruth’s supposedly unassailable record. Aaron would hit 40 more before he was done, gilding the total, but none of those came with the noise and heft of a single fourth-inning swing off the Dodgers’ Al Downing.
A swing that was, when weighing all the societal and sporting implications, “perhaps the most significant in the history of baseball,” Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite wrote at the time.
So happens that as was the case in 1974, April 8, 2014 falls on the happy day of the Braves’ home opener. The Aaron who is scheduled to appear at Turner Field for an anniversary celebration of No. 715 is 80 now, and recovering from a partial hip replacement after a February fall on an icy patch near his Atlanta home.
Aaron has been getting around on crutches since and can report that, while he expects a full recovery, rehab is more difficult than a Bob Gibson fastball, high and tight. “I have to be patient. It’s an old leg that has been through a lot,” he said.
As for reliving great accomplishments of the past, there actually is something positive to be said for the aging process. Seems that the further one is removed from the deed, the greater the enjoyment of it.
When he thinks about his grandchildren sitting in their seats Tuesday watching the inevitable replay of the home run, or the fact that some youngster in an airport may still recognize him, “it can bring tears to your eyes,” he said.
He obviously didn’t get to listen to the Milo Hamilton radio call 40 years ago – “Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be ... outta here! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron.” Now, it is a common pleasure.
And it can only be through retrospect, Aaron said, that a person can take comfort in the fact that he did all with his talents that he was supposed to do.
“Yes, you do appreciate it more than the moment you did it,” Aaron said.
How much Aaron was able to actually enjoy the build-up to and the crescendo of No. 715 is debatable.
At the advanced age of 39, Aaron hit 40 home runs during the 1973 season. An astonishing feat, but it left him one shy of Ruth, creating a “Dynasty”-type cliffhanger that dangled all through the offseason and spring training.
Aaron was not one to milk suspense. In his first at-bat of ‘74, in Cincinnati, he tied Ruth. Wanting to reserve the record-breaker for the home crowd, the Braves sat Aaron in the second game and would have the third, had Commissioner Bowie Kuhn not threatened reprisals. In the final game of the series in Cincy, Aaron cooperated by going 0-for-3, setting up a triumphant return to Atlanta.
The scene there was just a bearded lady short of a carnival.
Aaron was escorted through ranks of majorettes and plumes of balloons. They painted a massive U.S. flag in the outfield, and invited important people in Aaron’s life to stroll out and stand on their state. Sammy Davis Jr. flew in, but not the commissioner of baseball. Pearl Bailey sang the National Anthem.
Fimrite’s “Sports Illustrated” account 40 years ago quickly zeroed in on how the excesses so ill-fitted the man: “This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment has expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly. Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it. He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”
All this happened one year before the fall of Saigon, four months before Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and just three years after the University of Georgia fielded its first African-American football player. Plenty of turbulence to negotiate on the way to a joyful occasion.
“When it happened it was an exciting thing for America,” the Braves chairman at the time, Bill Bartholomay, said. “The record that could never be approached was not only approached, it was surpassed. And the guy who did it, did so with style and obviously great talent.”
As Aaron rounded the bases, two young fans intruded on his moment by following him around second. A particularly boneheaded move considering all the threatening, racist mail Aaron had received for daring to challenge Ruth’s record. Aaron’s police bodyguard briefly considered shooting them, but held off in fear of hitting the man of the hour.
When Aaron arrived at home plate, he was greeted by a much more welcome trespasser. “My mother jumping the fence and coming onto the field and getting to home plate before I did – that was one of the highlights of my life,” Aaron said.
So riotous was the celebration that a naked woman cavorting in the upper deck hardly registered. When security called the team’s director of public relations, Bob Hope, and asked him what to do about the streaker, he advised to do nothing so long as she had put on her clothes. No one had noticed her anyway.
That will be only one facet of 1974 not subject to re-creation Tuesday.
Having many of the sharp edges rounded out through the years, Aaron’s emotions certainly can’t be duplicated. Relieved as he was 40 years ago -- “I just thank God it’s all over,” were among Aaron’s first words after No. 715 -- he is so much more thankful now.
“Being 80, you have to take every day like it’s a new day,” he said.
Any excuse for revelry is a good thing, be it Tuesday or beyond. “If I’m here when (the 41st anniversary) comes around, we may go out and celebrate for a little while. My wife and I may go out and have dinner or something like that. We’ve celebrated this for a long time.”
Like any other classic, replaying Henry Aaron’s greatest hit should never get old or tired.