Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Celebrating the Greatness of Hank Aaron

Posted on April 05, 2010 by Dean Hybl
It was 36 years ago this week that Hank Aaron became the all-time home run king.

It was 36 years ago this week that Hank Aaron became the all-time home run king.

Given how much emphasis sports put on championships, it may seem a little strange that the most significant home run in Major League Baseball history was not hit during the month of October, but instead was struck in early April by an aging player on a team that wouldn’t come close to reaching the postseason.

Such was the case 36 years ago this week, on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron forever cemented a place for himself in baseball lore with his record breaking 715th home run.

Every die-hard sports fan has a number of moments that are forever etched in their subconscious memory – to the point that even years after the fact they can recall not just the special moment, but also where they were and what they were doing at the time.

Though I was only six-years old, the night when Aaron set the home run record is one of those moments for me.

My family was paying special attention to the record because we had family friends who were from Atlanta and thus big fans of Aaron and the Braves. “Hammerin’ Hank” had tied the record during the season opener in Cincinnati and there seemed to be little doubt that he was going to set the record during the home opener, which was being shown on national television by ABC. However, for a while there was some doubt whether we would be able to see it.

It was a stormy Monday night in my hometown of Keysville, Virginia, thanks to a powerful early spring thunderstorm that brought lightning, thunder and heavy rains. There was no such thing as cable television in our town in 1974 and because we were about 75 miles from the closest television station, even with having an antenna on the roof we never really had crystal clear reception. The general practice at that time was also to unplug the television during electrical storms so that the TV wouldn’t get zapped.

As the storm continued and it got closer to the 8 p.m. start time, there were serious concerns around my house as to whether we would get to watch the game. Fortunately, by game time the lightning was over and we were able to see the game.

As the game got underway, I remember anxiously sitting in front of the television waiting to see if Aaron would do it. The magical moment came in the fourth inning when Aaron launched into a pitch from Al Downing and sent the ball majestically through the air and over the fence. The ball was caught in the Braves’ bullpen by reliever Tom House, who quickly raced to the field and presented it to Aaron.

Even though the home run happened after 9 p.m., my mom and I were so excited that we called our friends and relived the moment with them.

After hitting number 715, Aaron acknowledged the crowd and was glad it was all over.

After hitting number 715, Aaron acknowledged the crowd and thanked God that it was all over.

That is about where my personal memory of the evening ends, but having now watched the moment hundreds of times over the years on various television programs, I know the home run itself was only part of the larger story.

The 1974 season would be Aaron’s last in Atlanta as he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers following the season. Though he had spent his entire career with the Braves organization, the team had been in Milwaukee until 1966, so returning to Milwaukee provided Aaron with a chance to complete his career where it began.

Around that same time, I wrote Aaron a letter congratulating him on his accomplishment and asking for an autograph. I still proudly have the auto-stamped picture of Aaron, wearing a Brewers’ uniform, which I received back.

It was only years later that I learned that many of the letters that Aaron received around the time of his special accomplishment were not as pleasant as the one I sent.

When I re-watch Aaron’s record-breaking home run, as well as interviews he gave during that time, I can’t help but feel a little sad.

I don’t at all mean to downplay the social significance that Aaron’s accomplishment represented, but it seems to me that too many people got caught up in that part of the story. Because of that, they weren’t able to appreciate Aaron’s tremendous talent and milestone achievement with the joy that I did as an innocent six-year old.

All the interviews I have seen of Aaron and his family during that period clearly illustrate that an experience that should have been so joyful was anything but.

Aaron finished his career with two seasons back in Milwaukee as a member of the Brewers.

Aaron finished his career with two seasons back in Milwaukee as a member of the Brewers.

One such interview described how Aaron’s mother raced to the field and put her arms around her 40-year old son to protect him in case anyone started shooting.

Aaron’s own comments right after the home run seem to sum it up pretty well. “I just thank God it’s all over with,” he said to the crowd on hand at Fulton County Stadium.

Over the 36-years since that glorious night, the sports world has struggled to completely understand and appreciate Hank Aaron. For some, the reluctance to embrace Aaron was certainly racially motivated. However, I also think there was a segment of baseball purists who would always consider Babe Ruth to be the greatest home run hitter in baseball history and thus believed that embracing Aaron would minimize the larger-than-life stature of Ruth.

Ironically, now that someone else technically has the MLB home run record, Aaron’s greatness is finally being fully recognized.

It has only been in the last few years – perhaps because the dramatic super-sizing of offensive statistics has distorted their significance – that many baseball purists have started to embrace Aaron. They seem to now acknowledge that while the basic rules of the game have always been just about the same, each era has had its own nuances and therefore the players within that era should be viewed on their own merits and appreciated accordingly.

The reality is that regardless of the era, Hank Aaron was a special player. I could spend all day talking about Aaron’s impressive statistical numbers, but instead will share just this one thing. Aaron finished among the top-17 in the National League MVP voting for an unprecedented 19 consecutive years (13 times in the top 10). In other words, Aaron wasn’t just consistently good; he was consistently one of the best players in the game.

In 1990, while interning for the Richmond Braves, I had the great pleasure to meet Aaron, who was representing the Atlanta front office at the Triple-A team’s season opener. He was amazingly gracious and spent time talking to me as well as to many other fans. Aaron even returned to the park the next morning and posed for a photo with our entire front office staff.

I am no longer the six-year old who watched Aaron’s record setting home run through a veil of awe and innocence. However, now as a 42-year old, when I think of Hank Aaron and how he has lived a life of grace and dignity despite all he had to withstand, it reminds me why I have loved sports for my entire life and why, contrary to what Charles Barkley and others may say, some athletes can indeed be our heroes.

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