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I think for everyone, there comes a time when you are very young, and you first notice Major League baseball. Usually, you are nudged toward the game by a parent or a friend, and in the course of sampling it, you eventually find a favorite player you really like.
It is at that point, you truly become a baseball fan.
For me, that player was Hank Aaron.
They say heroes get remembered, legends never die, but today, the greatest baseball legend of my life passed away. Hank was 86.
I can’t tell you why I was drawn to Hank, other than it was a completely different dynamic when I was growing up in the 1960s. You got to watch baseball only once every week on NBC’s Saturday Game Of The Week, and your view of the majors was filtered by whatever team was good at the time. In the mid to late 1960s, that meant you saw a lot of the St. Louis Cardinals, as they made the World Series in 1967 and 1968, so you got to watch them and listen to Curt Gowdy drone on about something during the contest.
They became my favorite team, but in the course of following them, I became aware of this outfielder playing for the newly-minted Atlanta Braves in 1967. The team had just moved a year or two ago from Milwaukee, and as a sophisticated 11-year-old, I’d roll my eyes every time my Dad referred to them as the Milwaukee Braves.
”C’mon Dad,” I would say. “Nobody calls them that any more.”
Hank Aaron just looked cool. He’d come to the plate, look loose and relaxed, and then launch a pitch 400 feet over an outfield fence. He wasn’t just a slugger either, as he batted for average and got on base a lot. But it was the home runs that became a magnet for me with Hank.
A few years later, MLB would have a promotion that said “Chicks dig the long ball.” In the 60s, us 11-year-olds thought they were really cool too.
That coolness grew to another level in the 1968 season. The Cardinals and Bob Gibson were dominating the National League again, but Hank was still hitting home runs. On my birthday that year, he had 499 career home runs, and I was kind of hoping he’d get No. 500 that day. He didn’t, but he did the next day, and all of a sudden we all began to realize the unthinkable could happen.
Growing up in the 60s, Babe Ruth was a baseball god to all of us even though none of us kids ever saw him play. But the stories we heard from our Dads and grandparents painted him as the greatest there ever was, and if you played Little League baseball, odds are your league was named after Babe Ruth. In the course of hearing all these stories about Ruth’s greatness (which I always thought was a little over the top because back then, anyone 20 years older than you was just an old man) you always heard the number 714: The unbreakable record of home runs in a career.
Starting with No. 500, I reassigned a spiral notebook meant for my continuing education to the purpose of recording the rest of Hank’s home runs. I’d get up every morning and scour the boxscores, just looking for word Hank had hit another one. If he did, I got out my No. 2 pencil and wrote the date, the team and the number of home runs it was in his career.
I had done the math. Hank would turn 40 during my senior year of high school, which wasn’t out of the question to be still playing at that age. He could do it if he kept healthy, and through transistor radio, Saturday’s Game Of The Week or my daily scanning of the scoreboard section of the Virginian-Pilot, I was going to record every single one of those home runs in my spiral notebook.
As the 1973 season ended and I started my senior year of high school, I was scared for Hank. He had finished the year with 713, one shy of the record he had chased all his life. It was then I realized just how bad the racism was he faced, as he got a lot of death threats for merely being in a position to break a long-standing record held by a white guy. Plus he was about to turn 40, making me wonder what if he got hurt in the offseason and couldn’t come back for another season?
Fortunately on Opening Day in 1974, Hank was in the lineup in left field. So was Virginia Tech’s Johnny Oates as the catcher, and not one but TWO players who would manage the Washington Nationals one day: Davey Johnson at second and Dusty Baker in center. Hank took all the suspense out of the game early, hitting a 3-run home run in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds for No. 714.
I grabbed my spiral notebook, wrote in the info and circled it. Several times.
The Braves pulled Hank the rest of the series so when he hit No. 715, it would be in Atlanta. In the 4th inning against Al Downing, Darrell Evans started it off by reaching on an error. Hank came up, took one pitch, and there it was….the home run we’d all waited a decade for.
I was as happy as if my own team had won a World Series. Hank rounded the bases as two knuckleheads jumped out of the stands and tried to escort him home, and when Hank touched home plate, he was mobbed by a huge group of people. Within 15 minutes, however, the electricity in the stadium seemed gone as the crowd went from jam packed and overflowing to about 10,000 people.
People had come to see Hank hit No. 715. They got what they paid for and left.
Hank would finish the season with 20 home runs to put him at 733, then would play two more seasons back in Milwaukee and end his career with 755. But no matter what else he did the rest of his career, whenever I saw him I would always remember that smile, that home run in Atlanta, and that spiral notebook I toted around for years.
When I heard the news of his passing today, it also reminded me of one other thing. Mixed in with that crushing mob at home plate that night was a young Atlanta sports reporter. His name was Craig Sager, and he’d go on to a lot of fame of his own. He reached in with a mic and tried to get a comment, and you can see him on the old highlight reels.
This morning, I imagined Craig - who passed away a little more than four years ago - facing Hank and exchanging a few more words. Only this time it was in heaven, with Craig saying, “We’ve been waiting for you, Hank.