When Hammerin’ Hank broke the Babe’s record

Going on half a lifetime ago, from Henry Aaron’s bat to the night sky over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, that baseball asked a nation what it thought of itself. Not what it thought of baseball. Not what it thought of baseball players or records or history.

But what it thought of a place where a man would require uncommon courage to try. Then, to succeed, a bodyguard with a gun hidden in a binoculars case.

“I’m just glad it’s almost over with,” a 40-year-old Aaron had said in the hours before he hit the 715th home run of his career.

In the moments after, “I just thank God it’s all over with.”

Babe Ruth, large, verbose, a Yankee and white, had held the record for 53 years, upon his 139th home run. He hit another 575. He put it out of reach. He was what much of a nation had thought of itself.

Along came Henry Aaron from Mobile, Alabama, the son of a shipyard worker, one of eight children to Herbert and Estella Aaron, and all kinds of ballplayer.

I was 11 and had no idea Henry Aaron was anything but a ballplayer. He was the guy in Atlanta who killed the Mets. He was about to catch The Babe, maybe that very Monday night on TV. He hit a lot of home runs. He was not Willie.

(Yahoo Sports)(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

Other than the occasional stickball debate over whether it was actually “Henry” or “Hank,” the conversations began at the top of his baseball card and ended at the bottom of it. Every year, the Braves. Every year, the home runs, the RBIs. Every year, the All-Star Games. Every year, back at it again, stacking long crooked numbers across columns that honored the working man, the man who showed up barehanded with a Louisville Slugger, tamped a flapless helmet over his cap and dead-eye hunted pitchers. Maybe he was Willie.

Just a ballplayer. We had no idea. I had no idea.

On April 8, 1974, nearly 54,000 people shimmied into a stadium designed for a couple thousand fewer than that. Al Downing, the Dodgers left-hander, threw a fastball in the fourth inning. Henry Aaron swung and in that moment everyone knew he’d gone and passed the man who’d invented the damned thing.

Then they had to consider how they felt about that.

The people on their feet, screaming his name, celebrating through tears, going soft at the sight of Henry’s mom draped from her son’s neck. The people on their typewriters, spitting anonymous threats, specific enough that ballpark security guards had to be reminded not to watch Aaron, to turn away from one of the great feats in baseball history, and toward the crowd.

The people who’d welcomed Jackie Robinson seven years before Henry Aaron arrived, who’d wondered how it had taken so long, who on that very night had yet to see a black man manage a major league baseball game, yet applauded the progress. And the people who’d shouted the terrible words, the hateful people who’d promised the violence, who’d made Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, even Henry Aaron — strong people, decent people, dignified people — so much more necessary. The Civil Rights Act was signed during Henry Aaron’s 11th season. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in his 15th. Robert Kennedy, two months later. 

“There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!” Milo Hamilton announced from a booth behind home plate.

“It is gone,” Vin Scully said from a nearby booth. “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.”

Know how many good days a man has to have to hit 715 home runs? Know how many bad days a black man in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s had to turn into good days?

He’d reportedly said more than once as he’d neared the record, “All I have to do to beat Ruth is to stay alive,” and maybe he’d smiled and maybe he hadn’t, and maybe he’d wondered what was in the binoculars case and maybe he hadn’t.

“Move over Babe,” the outfield scoreboard blared, “here comes Henry.”

Henry Aaron is 86. He hit the last of his 755 home runs 44 years ago. Someone else came along and took his record. Aaron was gracious, more than most.

He is a Hall of Famer. He hit those home runs, felt every one of them off his bat, watched them all go, earned them, and for that — along with so many other skills — he is remembered for being a ballplayer. For the rest of it, how he carried his success, how he carried the approaching and inevitable record across a nation divided, how he made it his, he is remembered for something greater.

Forty-six years later, he is Hammerin’ Hank, the man who also was a ballplayer.

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