30 years later, Hammerin' Hank remembers No. 715

Posted: Tuesday, April 06, 2004

ATLANTA Thirty years later, Hank Aaron is a bit fuzzy on the pitch Al Downing threw that night in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

''Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,'' Aaron said. ''I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.''

As the ball sailed over the left-field fence, the Hammer trotted into history, having passed the Babe as the greatest home-run hitter.

No. 715.

It's a figure that still resonates as one of sport's magical milestones. Aaron would go on to hit 40 more homers before he retired in 1976.

While 755 is the target that Barry Bonds chases, it was 715 struck against Downing and the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, 1974 that stands as the seminal moment for Aaron.

Babe Ruth's 714 became a relic of history, cast aside by a quiet, black man from Mobile, Ala., who endured death threats during his quest.

Aaron spent most of his 23-year career with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta. The team will honor the 30th anniversary Thursday night before its game against the New York Mets.

''Oh, it really doesn't seem like it's been 30 years,'' Aaron said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''Time really creeps away from you, doesn't it?''

He's 70 now, a landmark reached a couple of months ago, accompanied by reminders of his advancing years. Four of his seven siblings have died. Another is crippled by a stroke. Aaron had to give up tennis because of creaky knees.

But he still leaves the house almost every day at 5:30 a.m., heading to Turner Field for an hourlong workout. He enjoys a round of golf (as long as the cart is included). He looks fit and happy, a successful businessman who owns a car dealership and 17 Krispy Kreme doughnut shops.

''That's why I work out every day,'' he joked.

Aaron doesn't spend much time watching baseball on TV ''I don't need some announcer to tell me if it's a fastball or a curveball'' but he enjoys getting out to the ballpark.

He went to see Pedro Martinez pitch. Ditto for Randy Johnson.

While Aaron played on just one team that won a World Series, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, his only regret is failing to capture the Triple Crown.

''Other than that,'' he said, ''everything else was completed.''

Aaron's role with the Braves senior vice president and assistant to the president is largely ceremonial, but that hasn't stopped him from speaking out on some of the game's most pressing issues.

He's against putting Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame. He wants baseball to adopt a tougher drug-testing policy. He called for more blacks in upper management.

He doesn't believe the New York Yankees are assured of a championship just because they spend more.

''I don't think it's good for the game, but I also don't think it guarantees a winner, either,'' Aaron said. ''All those guys they got are used to being the star on their ballclub. They're used to hitting home runs and seeing their name in lights.''

When it comes to steroids, Aaron would rather speak in generalities than focus on anyone especially Bonds, who begins the season with 658 homers.

''I'll just say collectively that all this talk about steroids in baseball is bad,'' Aaron said. ''I wouldn't want anyone setting records if they're on steroids. But none of these guys is accused of anything. It's just being talked about.''

Aaron is dismissive of the current testing system, which allows for a one-year suspension only after the fifth positive test for a banned performance-enhancing drug.

''It's got to be much more serious than what we have now,'' Aaron said. And what does he remember about 715? Mostly, those who watched him break Ruth's record.

Jimmy Carter, then two years away from being elected president, was there on that cool night in Atlanta. So was Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor. And don't forget Sammy Davis Jr.

''Those were the giants in our time,'' Aaron said. ''I was out there playing this little bitty baseball game ... and these guys were coming to watch me play. I guess it must have been a pretty big deal.''

Aaron also remembers who wasn't there: then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who had forced Aaron to play in a season-opening series at Cincinnati, jeopardizing his chances to break the record in Atlanta.

Dusty Baker watched the homer from the on-deck circle, shooting a fist in the air when the ball left the bat. As Aaron rounded second, two young fans sprinted in from right field, startling No. 44 when they patted him on the back before racing back to the stands in left.

''I guess that will always be a part of me running around the bases,'' Aaron said. ''I never had anyone run with me before. They were just kids having a good time.''

A teammate then, Baker now manages the Chicago Cubs. The passage of 30 years hasn't lessened his admiration of Aaron's accomplishment.

''That wasn't in the day of modern medicine,'' Baker said. ''If you hurt your knee or your shoulder, you were almost done. That's what is so amazing to me, the fact that he averaged so many games. He averaged 150 games a year for 20 years.''

Aaron never hit more than 47 homers, but he reached 20 for 20 consecutive seasons. He won a batting title and averaged just 63 strikeouts a year. He led the National League in homers and RBIs four times each.

For good measure, Aaron won three Gold Gloves in the outfield and averaged more than 20 steals during a nine-year stretch.

Aaron didn't put up his numbers in an era of gaudy offense and watered-down pitching. He faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.

As Aaron closed in on Ruth's record, there were plenty of people who didn't want to see a black man surpass a towering figure such as Ruth, who happened to be white. They expressed their sentiment with thousands of hateful letters, which Aaron has kept to this day.

''They exist,'' he said rather cryptically.

''Now, if someone wrote a letter saying he didn't want me to break the record, that's not the issue. We all have people we admire. I'm sure if someone comes along and breaks my record, people will be saying this and that. That's normal. But I guess I was a little bit taken aback because of the way most of the letters were attacking me.''

If someone breaks Aaron's record, he plans to be there to shake their hand.

''It wouldn't matter to me one bit,'' he said. ''The athletes today, most of them, are much more superior collectively to when I was playing. They're bigger. They're stronger. They're healthier.''

Not that Aaron wouldn't have been a success in any era.

''I may not have hit 70 homers in a season,'' he said, ''but I would have been up there.''



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS