Hank Aaron has made news on several counts this month. He turned 75 years of age, attracting scores of celebrities to a birthday party held for him in his native Georgia. The Hall of Fame has announced that it will open the “Hank Aaron Records Room” this spring. Additionally, Aaron has commented publicly on Barry Bonds, taking the high road in saying that the ex-Giants slugger should be considered the all-time home run king in spite of mounting evidence that he used steroids during his days in San Francisco.
Thirty five years ago, Aaron completed his own assault on the home run mark. Steroids were not an issue at the time, but reports of death threats and some unfavorable comparisons to Babe Ruth filled the newspapers. In spite of those roadblocks, Aaron remained poised as he stood on the edge of rewriting the game’s record book.
On Monday night, April 8, Aaron and the Braves hosted the Dodgers at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Given the grand possibilities of the evening, NBC Television decided to provide a special broadcast of the game, even though the network did not feature regular Monday night telecasts at the time. Moments before Braves right-hander Ron Reed threw the game’s first pitch, National League umpire Lee Weyer took a look at the crowd of 53,755 fans, a record for the ballpark, and remarked, “I’m glad I’m here. History might be made tonight.”
Braves manager Eddie Mathews inserted Aaron, his left fielder and former teammate, into the cleanup spot, behind Darrell Evans and ahead of Dusty Baker. In the bottom of the first, veteran left-hander Al Downing, a former Yankee and a onetime 20-game winner, took to the mound for the Dodgers. He immediately produced a sense of disappointment for the capacity crowd, as he retired Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr, Mike Lum, and Evans on three consecutive groundouts. Any record-breaking theater would have to wait until the second inning, at the earliest.
After impatiently watching the Dodgers go down in the top of the second, Atlanta fans anticipated the first head-to-head matchup of the night. Leading off against Downing, Aaron drew a walk. He came home to score on a double by Baker, assisted by Bill Buckner’s error in left field. Interestingly, when Aaron touched home plate, he broke Willie Mays’ record for the most runs scored in National League history, a record almost entirely overlooked in the midst of media and fan attention surrounding Hank’s home run pursuit. (The connection between Aaron and Mays has become especially noteworthy because of the growing rivalry that has developed between the two men. Each summer, Hall of Fame officials are careful to sit Aaron and Mays apart from each other during the annual induction ceremony.)
Atlanta fans, however, had little interest in watching Aaron score a run after a walk. They wanted the run to come via the home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch to hit. After all, most fans were not only anticipating the possibility of a record being broken, but nervous as well. There was no guarantee that “The Hammer” would deliver that night; yet many fans had tickets only to that game.
In the fourth inning, Aaron came to bat again. With the Braves trailing 3-1, two men out and a runner on first, Aaron patiently watched Downing’s first pitch, a change-up in the dirt. Ball one. Now behind in the count, Downing threw Aaron a slider. The pitch was low, but down the middle, perhaps a strike if he let it go. Aaron did not. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. The ball had only moderate height, typical of Aaron, who rarely hit towering fly balls. As the ball carried, left fielder Bill Buckner and center fielder Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn raced in the direction of the warning track, converging just a few feet from the outfield wall. Placing his arms on top of the wall, Buckner tried to prop himself higher, above the boundary of the fence. Young and spry at this early stage of his career, Buckner saw his valiant attempt fall well short. Both Billy Buck and The Cannon watched the ball land in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, who was standing in Atlanta’s bullpen.
Two overly enthusiastic fans accompanied Aaron on his tour around the bases. Security forces must have cringed at the site of the intruders, but they carried neither weapons nor ill intentions. (They would, however, have to spend a memorable night in an Atlanta jail before eventually becoming friends with the new home run king.) By the time Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron’s swarm of notable teammates included Baker (who had been kneeling in the on-deck circle), future Mets manager Dave Johnson, and Frank Tepedino, a former Yankee who would gain fame in later years for his role as a New York City fireman during the tragic day of September 11.
The umpires temporarily halted the game, allowing for an understated on-field ceremony that lasted a modest 11 minutes. During the proceedings, Aaron spoke to the crowd at Fulton County Stadium. “I’m happy it’s over,” Aaron said of his grueling chase of Ruth’s record, once thought unreachable by baseball historians. “Now I can consider myself one of the best. Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game—[Joe] DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.”
Even 35 years later, few fans would argue with Aaron’s humble assessment.
Bruce Markusen, who once had the privilege of interviewing Henry Aaron, writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.