“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
That was part of Vin Scully’s call on April 8, 1974, when Henry Aaron homered off Dodgers left-hander Al Downing in Atlanta, giving Aaron 715 home runs, breaking the all-time home run record that Babe Ruth held for five decades.
Aaron died on Friday at age 86, a truly devastating loss for baseball.
I never saw Henry Aaron play, and by the time I started watching baseball in the mid-1980s Aaron was already a Hall of Famer, his status as legend cemented. But he seemed more like a superhero.
Hitting 30 home runs was a huge benchmark when I started watching baseball, and for a while it seemed unattainable, at least for the Dodgers. After having a record four players hit 30 home runs in 1977, the Dodgers only had one player in the next 15 seasons hit 30 homers in a season — Pedro Guerrero, who did it three times. So it was difficult to wrap my brain around someone averaging 33 homers FOR 23 YEARS, which is what Aaron did.
Henry Aaron’s numbers are incredible on their own. A 140 OPS+ for 19 straight seasons. Received MVP votes for 19 straight years. An All-Star in 21 straight seasons. Most total bases in MLB history. Most runs batted in.
Aaron also stole 240 bases, and finished in the top 10 in the NL in steals eight times, including 1963, when he lead the league in home runs and finished second to Maury Wills in steals. Aaron never struck out 100 times, and finished his career with more walks than strikeouts. If you take away all 755 home runs, he’d still have over 3,000 hits.
But it was what Aaron had to go through to produce those numbers that makes them, and him, even more remarkable. Subjected to the most vile hatred from racists as he approached the home run record of an all-time great white player, Aaron received countless death threats. From Howard Bryant at ESPN:
Over the years, Aaron would be praised for his quiet resolve and dignity in the face of such threats. He would dine with international heads of state and every sitting president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, but the negative response from so many of his countrymen was a scar he would carry for the rest of his life.
“It was supposed to be the greatest triumph of my life, but I was never allowed to enjoy it. I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” he once said. “The only reason that some people didn’t want me to succeed was because I was a black man.”
As the 20th anniversary of his home run feat approached 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.”
Aaron hit 95 home runs against the Dodgers in his career, second only to Willie Mays. Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves were a thorn in the Dodgers’ side in the late-1950s. Milwaukee finished second to the Dodgers in 1955, 1956, and 1959, losing the latter in a best-of-three playoff won by the Dodgers 2-0, during which Aaron reached base six times in 10 plate appearances. The Braves made the World Series in 1957 and 1958, splitting a pair of seven-game series with the Yankees.
On Sept. 20, 1973, Aaron got his 3,500th career hit at Dodger Stadium, a single off Downing in the eighth inning, one of three hits Aaron had that night.
Aaron hit 17 home runs against Don Drysdale, his most against any pitcher. Aaron hit .362/.431/.647 with seven home runs against Sandy Koufax, who said on ESPN’s SportsCentury retrospective of Aaron, “For me he was the toughest out. For everybody else I had a plan. With Henry, I just never figured out what I was going to do.”
Consider how pitchers openly spoke about how hard it was to pitch to Aaron:
- From Bob Gibson: “I threw the ball pretty hard, and if I threw inside to him, I couldn’t get it by him. You just could not get it by him. He was just that quick.”
- From Curt Simmons (1): “Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
- From Jim Murray (2): “Don Drysdale used to say of Henry Aaron that trying to smuggle a fastball past him was like trying to smuggle a sunrise past a rooster.”
Major League Baseball began bestowing the Hank Aaron Award in 1999, an honor for the best offensive player in each league. The winners are announced and introduced during the World Series each year. In both 2017 (before Game 2) and 2018 (before Game 3), the Aaron Award was given out at Dodger Stadium, with Aaron there to present the awards. It was a wonderful opportunity to see firsthand how revered Aaron was by nearly everyone around him, including the current major league players, truly honored to be among baseball royalty.
If the Hall of Fame’s inner circle has an inner circle, Henry Aaron is in it. Farewell to one of a kind.
- “Baseball’s greatest quotes.” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), October 8, 1982.
- “‘Say Hey’ tells it the way he played the game,” by Jim Murray. Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1988.