Green: Chasing gracious Henry Aaron ahead of twister surrounding his monumental feat

Detroit News

Jerry Green
 |  Special to The Detroit News

Until then, the home-run sluggers were beefy white men with ruddy jowls. Babe Ruth. Jimmie Foxx. Hank Greenberg. 

Then came Henry Aaron. Slender. Black. Dignified. Gracious.

Henry Aaron exploded the stereotypes and succeeded mightily against the prejudices that had lingered in Baseball for nearly a century. 

There was a headline on the front pager of this newspaper on April 9, 1974. Simply: “715.”

No more than three special digits.

The News’ headline that day was accompanied by a photograph and a sports column. I have never been prouder of a column or an article through all the years.

The night before, Aaron hit a home run to left field in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. And the most precious, prominent, record in American sports were gone.

Erased.

It was the climax to a vigil. The vigil had endured through two baseball seasons, 1973 and 1974. It had lasted through a winter, a suspenseful spring training, a tornado, to an Opening Day. Aaron had acquired an entourage of sports journalists from New York, Philly, Detroit, hometown Atlanta, Milwaukee, and other scenic spots across the nation. 

Ruth’s magical 714 had remained unreachable for 46 years, a career remnant from the historic — supposedly invincible — 1927 Yankees. It had survived an assault by Foxx, who had threatened Ruth’s one-season standard of 60 in 1932 with 58. It remained unchallenged in another home-run outburst by Greenberg that captivated Detroit in 1938. Also at 58.

Home run surge

Until Henry’s numbers started to mount in the 700s, Ruth’s career 714 was considered to be inviolate. 

I was dispatched to chronicle the pursuit sometime in September of ’73.

Every afternoon, Henry would arrive at the ballpark. The cadre of lusting sports journalists was already there, elbows sharpened, ballpoints and notepaper at the ready. Henry would step through the cluster, polite. Always Henry — who died Friday at 86 — remained the dignified gentleman. It was what Ruth never was, according to the comments passed by the oldtimers during my youth.

“What did you do today, Henry (or Hank)?” one of us would blurt out our original question.

“Oh, today, we went to the butcher,” Aaron replied. 

We’d scribble his response into our pads.

“What do you know about Babe Ruth?” some guy would ask.

Henry would repeat yesterday’s yarn about reading about the Babe.

“You get a lot of mail today?” he was asked.

“Yep,” Henry would say, and you could see that he wanted to change the subject.

Being born, growing up and playing baseball in the Deep South was hardly a joy to Henry Aaron. He would acknowledge that much of his mail was racist. His pursuit of a white, American hero’s greatest accomplishment was a daily news topic. But as I recall, all through his pursuit of 714 and then 715, Aaron seldom dwelled on the racism he was forced to suffer — not to the Yankee sportscribes.

A few more repetitious questions with repetitious answers, and we’d be off upstairs to the toil of writing. 

We’d sit there and root — something we were taught early never to do — for Aaron to hit a home run that night. And in some games, he did, which would provide us with fresh fodder. 

The numbers mounted — 710, 711, 712.

Then we reached the final weekend of the 1973 season. 

On Friday, two games before the end of the season, Aaron hit a three-run homer vs. the Astros. It was No. 713. 

And that’s where Aaron’s pursuit of the Babe’s 714 paused, one home run shy.

Afterward, Baseball and its history hovered through the winter and spring training. Our anticipation pangs heightened. April arrived. The Braves were to open their 1974 season in Cincinnati.

At last. And the mob regrouped.

Funnel vision

Off again, a flight to Cincinnati. Soon, the airplane started to shake. And so, did I. The skies darkened. Outside the winds raged. We started to descend toward the airport, across the river, in Kentucky. On the approach, passing downtown Cincinnati, I peered out the window on the starboard side of the plane.

To this day, the sight haunts me.

There was a dark finger of wind spinning from the dark heavens. Downwards into the heart of the metropolis. 

Oh my!

The plane landed and taxied to a gate. 

The passengers emerged; I still was shaking with horror. I headed toward the baggage claim. The next gate announced a plane soon to arrive from Atlanta.

There was a welcoming crowd waiting; this was before the years of airport security.

And standing there amid the crowd was Henry Aaron. He was just another guy, waiting for a passenger — his wife, Billye.

The Great Aaron greeted me, we shook hands, and we both knew this was not just another Opening Day in Cincinnati, where Opening Days had oozed tradition since the beginnings of Baseball.

The next day was bright. Nice for an Opener. Except the Cincy papers concentrated not on Baseball and Aaron, but the devastation to portions of the city.

The game started. Jack Billingham was the Reds’ starter.

First inning! Aaron at bat! Henry takes his first swing of the new season! After six months of suspense!

A shot toward left field — No. 714! 

Henry had tied Babe Ruth.

The Braves’ masterplan was for Aaron to break the record in home in Atlanta; Eddie Mathews, the Braves’ manager (and championship 1968 Tiger) admitted this much. 

So, Henry sat one day, then played part of a game on Sunday.

Then, on to Atlanta for the Braves’ home opener vs. the Dodgers.

Bottom of the fourth, Al Downing pitching for the Dodgers:

Darrell Evans is safe at first on an error. 

Next batter — Henry Aaron! Aaron hits majestic drive toward left field in County Stadium on a 1-0 count! The left fielder, Bill Buckner, goes back to the fence!

Buckner leaps! The baseball soars over his glove and descends into the bullpen!

Tom House, a Braves relief pitcher, catches it.

And pandemonium! Not quite as wild as the tornado, but close!

And head high, regally as always, Henry Aaron, trailing Darrell Evans, trots around the bases for the 715th time in his career!

En route, Aaron shakes hands with Bill Russell, the Dodgers’ shortstop, eludes a couple of fans who had emerged from the grandstands, bypasses a would-be interviewer, and steps on home plate!

And there it was, a snapshot from Baseball history, bright and clear, a memory to savor 46 years later.

Afterward, Aaron would add to his record with the Braves and then Brewers. He would retire with the MLB career home run record with 755.    

He would, in a couple of biographies, describe the racial insults that he was forced to encounter as he established the route for another binge of home-run hitters.  

And Aaron’s record — seemingly inviolate as Ruth’s 714 had been — would survive, untinged, for another 33 years. 

It was in 2007 that Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record with No. 756 and finished with 762. Without the fanfare.

Now, 23 years later, 762 exists. Slightly tinged!

Jerry Green is a former Detroit News sports reporter.

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