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by Bruce Markusen
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Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 04/08/2004

A Home Run For The Ages

Three decades ago this month, the major league baseball season opened with the exalted Babe Ruth still the all-time home run champion—but barely. Ruth’s total stood at 714, but there was an able challenger waiting for the new season to begin. It was underrated Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron, who was threatening to overtake “The Great Bambino” as home run king, a title Ruth had held for 53 consecutive years.

By the end of the 1973 season, Aaron trailed Ruth’s career total by one home run. His 713th home run came on the second-to-last day of the season, and only because teammates begged him to re-consider his decision not to play, so that three Braves would have a chance to finish the season with 40 or more home runs. Sure enough, Aaron came through, hitting his 40th home run to join teammates Darrell Evans [41] and Dave Johnson [43] in the history-making 40-40-40 home run club. Aaron then elected to play the final game of the ‘73 season, but did not hit a home run as part of a three-hit day, making sure that 1974 would truly become a season of anticipation.

Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth's record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others even implied or dictated threats on his life.

When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. Aaron noted that he received over 900,000 letters in 1973; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. Aaron, with help from the Braves, hired a personal bodyguard named Calvin Wardlaw. Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, equipped with a .38 revolver in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.

In addition, Aaron faced other obstacles and controversies as the 1974 season approached. In February, Atlanta president Bill Bartholomay had announced that the Braves would bench Aaron for their season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds, which would be played on the road. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from members of the baseball media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were assaulting the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that was clearly not their best. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1973. He was still their best player, even as he turned 40 years of age. Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.”

After several weeks of heated debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped into the fracas. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced his disapproval of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron. “Barring disability,” the commissioner went on to say, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.” Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, only because he had no such power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, the message was clear to the Braves, who eventually reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup on Opening Day.

Aaron had anticipated his Opening Day matchup against Jack Billingham for several months; he had actually been thinking about his confrontation with Billingham during his off-season honeymoon. “I thought all winter about what he would throw me,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography I Had A Hammer, “even lying on the beach in Jamaica with my bride.”

Aaron was ready. Facing the Reds’ right-hander in the Thursday afternoon sun of Riverfront Stadium, Aaron patiently watched the first four pitches thrown to him. With the count now three-and-one, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. A few seconds later, Billingham’s fifth delivery landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.

Although the Braves obviously didn’t want him to break the record on the road, Aaron remained in the game. He grounded out, walked, and flied out in his final three plate appearances. Not wanting to take any more chances with fate, Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews (a longtime teammate of Aaron) removed him from the game in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with journeyman Rowland Office, who then gave way to pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.

After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on Saturday afternoon. Given the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews decided to sit his venerable superstar. Mathews moved Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with rookie Ivan Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.

Mathews’ decision prompted an angry reaction from the Commissioner’s Office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order” and that “severe” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.

So Aaron returned to the lineup for the series finale, but failed to play one of his vintage games. He struck out twice—each time on three pitches—and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Covering the game for the Daily News, Dick Young wrote that Aaron had never looked “worse in his life.” After the game, the caustic writer asked Aaron if he was even trying to hit a home run. He seemed to imply that Aaron was not giving his all—that perhaps he was “saving” himself for the team’s home opener. Aaron replied to Young’s interrogation calmly and without a hint of anger. “It’s not easy walking up there and hitting a home run. Not as easy as they think.”

Not that easy, given the intense round of media scrutiny being placed on Aaron. Not that easy, given the stacks of hate mail and death threats that Aaron was continuing to receive. Some of the threats seemed so genuine that the Braves hired extra security to act as Aaron’s personal bodyguards.

On Monday night, April 8, the Dodgers faced the Braves in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. Al Downing, a veteran left-handed hurler and onetime 20-game winner, was on the mound for the Dodgers. 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.”

Aaron drew a walk in his first plate appearance, eventually scoring a run. 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 fans, however, wanted a home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch he might hit. After all, most fans were not only excited about 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. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. Dodger outfielders Bill Buckner and Jim 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. The valiant attempt fell well short. Both Buckner and Wynn 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. By the team Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron then 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—DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.” Few would argue with Aaron’s conservative assessment.

During the brief ceremony following the historic home run, rain started to fall on Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. For a few moments, some of the fans worried about the rain, knowing that five innings had not been completed. Fortunately, the rain stopped, allowing the Braves and Dodgers to continue the game and make it official. Aaron's home run stood, as did the new record. The Braves went on to win the milestone game, 7-4. One of the most memorable home runs in baseball history would not be wasted in a losing cause.

Aaron’s landmark blast received vast nationwide coverage. Many daily newspapers reported Aaron's achievement in front page headlines. A number of major publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and Sport Magazine, all featured Aaron on their covers. Companies like MacGregor Sporting Goods even took out full page advertisements saluting the game’s new home run king.

By first reaching and then eclipsing Ruth, “The Hammer” set a career standard for all other power hitters, past and present. Aaron ended his major league playing career two years later, with a grand sum of 755 home runs. Although Aaron’s total was once considered unbreakable, the recent spree of home run hitting in the 1990s and the early 2000s has placed several players within earshot of Aaron’s mark. Barry Bonds ranks as the favorite among the short-timers, while Alex Rodriguez may have the inside track amongst the younger set to walk with some of the game’s elite company in the 700 club. Just as Henry Aaron himself did 30 years ago when he forced people to mention his name in the same breath with a fellow named Babe Ruth.

(Editor’s Note: Ron Visco, a teacher in the Hall of Fame’s education department and the holder of a PH. D. in research, co-wrote this feature about Aaron’s milestone blast. For more—much more—on Aaron’s dramatic and successful pursuit of 715 home runs, be sure to read Tom Stanton’s excellent new book, Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America. An award-winning author, Stanton has previously written The Road To Cooperstown and The Final Season.)

The Nickname Game

Hank Aaron’s nicknames—at first “Hammerin’ Henry” and then the less formal “Hammerin’ Hank”—originated at the typewriters of sportswriters, who saw a chance to make an alliterative play on his first name while also paying tribute to Aaron’s thunderous bat. The nickname was later shortened to “Hammer,” which was easier to say and fit more easily into smaller headline space. Unlike other superstar players with unique nicknames (Willie “The Say Hey Kid” Mays, Stan “The Man” Musial, and Babe “The Bambino” Ruth), Aaron’s nickname was eventually “borrowed” and attached to players of later generations. Slugging John Milner, who made his big league debut with the New York Mets in 1971, became “The Hammer,” largely because he considered Aaron his boyhood idol. While Milner never came close to matching Aaron’s greatness, he accomplished far more than perennial Oakland A’s prospect Bobby Brooks, who also earned the moniker for his hard-hitting style in the minor leagues. And in perhaps the most interesting “Hammer” to emerge in later generations, A’s front office official and glorified go-fer Stanley Burrell received the label from Oakland superstar Reggie Jackson. Burrell couldn’t hit like Aaron, but did carry an uncanny facial resemblance to the longtime Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves star.

Card Corner

As a tribute to Aaron’s impending achievement, the Topps Company issued a unique set of “Hank Aaron Special” cards as part of its 1974 set, including miniature reprints of all of his previous Topps cards. Issued as the No. 1 card in the set of 660, Aaron’s primary (or main) card was unlike most of the 1974s, which featured a vertical design with colored banners at the top and bottom of the card. The Aaron card featured a horizontal arrangement, with a gold interior border running along the edges of the card. Rather than fill most of the card with a full-sized photographic image, Topps used a smaller portrait photo of the future Hall of Famer, creating an image that filled two-thirds of the card. That allowed Topps to create a special segment with the other third of the card, which featured a blue and gold crown, the name “hank aaron” in a lower-case gold font, and the words “NEW ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING” emblazoned in upper-case purple letters toward the bottom of the card… In producing the card, Topps did something that it rarely did in creating cards to commemorate special occasions. Rather than highlighting a record-surpassing feat after it had happened, Topps actually anticipated Aaron’s breaking of the record. Keep in mind that the card was issued in March, when Topps traditionally used to release its first cards of the new year, or about a month before Aaron had even broken, much less tied the record. In a sense, Topps took a gamble in issuing the card, albeit a small one, so early in the season. What if Aaron had suffered a season-ending injury during spring training, or had endured the calamity of a broken leg on Opening Day? That would have left Aaron waiting until 1975 to tie and break the record, leaving Topps with what would have been probably its most famous “error” card of all time. Thankfully, no physical adversities came to pass, spring training progressed without injury, Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day, and then eclipsed the milestone the following Monday in front of a nationally televised audience. In what amounted to a happy ending, Topps successfully produced a memorable card that paid homage to one of the game’s true greats and one of the most indelibly-marked moments in its history.

Pastime Passings

(Editor’s Note: Thanks to www.historicbaseball.com and www.thedeadballera.com for supplying us with much of the information appearing in these obituaries.)

George Bamberger (Died on April 4 in North Redington Beach, Florida; age 78; cancer): Considered one of the great pitching gurus of the 1960s and seventies, “Bambi” enjoyed a successful run as pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 to 1977. Under his guidance, Orioles pitchers helped the team win three American League pennants and one World Championship from 1969 to 1971. During his tenure, four Orioles claimed Cy Young Awards, two for future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and two for left-handed craftsman Mike Cuellar. In 1971, Bamberger’s staff reached its pinnacle as four starters remarkably posted 20-win seasons, including Palmer, Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally. No team has come close to matching four 20-game victors since Bambi’s Orioles… Bamberger’s work as a pitching tutor so impressed other teams that the Milwaukee Brewers hired him as their manager after the 1977 season. Bambi led the Brewers to two finishes of 90-plus wins before a heart ailment requiring bypass surgery cut short his managing days, forcing him to retire in the middle of the 1980 season. Bamberger’s retirement didn’t last; he came back to guide the rebuilding New York Mets in 1982 and ’83, before returning to the helm of the Brewers in 1985 and ’86. Including his two stints in Milwaukee, Bamberger accumulated a more-than-respectable record of 377-351 as the manager of the Brew Crew.

Bob Cremins (Died on March 27 in Pelham, New York; age 98): Pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Cremins made his major league debut under the most stressful of circumstances, having to face Babe Ruth of the hated New York Yankees in August of 1927. The young left-hander retired Ruth with relative ease, inducing a ground ball to first base. Yet, Cremins appeared in only three more games after that and then decided to leave the game the following season. Cremins achieved success in his post-playing days, becoming a cartoonist for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper and working as Pelham’s town supervisor. A war hero, Cremins also worked on an air-sea rescue vehicle for four years during World War II. At the time of his death, Cremins was the second oldest former major leaguer, just behind Ray Cunningham. The 99-year-old Cunningham played 11 games in two seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jim “Pig” Harris (Died on March 22 in Mobile, Alabama; age 84). A veteran of Negro Leagues baseball in the 1940s, Harris played as a catcher for the Mobile Black Bears, the Mobile Black Shippers, and the Weinacker Indians. In one of the highlights of his career, Harris once homered off legendary Negro Leagues ace Satchel Paige. Harris later signed contracts with the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians organizations, but never advanced past the minor league level.

Marvin Moran (Died on March 1; age 80): Moran never played or managed, but did gain some notoriety when he successfully battled polio and then became the official voice of the National Anthem for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s and early 1960s. Moran sang the Anthem at the 1955 All-Star Game and in the 1957 World Series, with Milwaukee’s County Stadium serving as the site for each performance.

Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. Markusen is also host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon on MLB.com Radio.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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