Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

April 10, 2014

Aaron, still a hero, 40 years after No. 715

BLUEFIELD — Where were you when Hank Aaron hit 715?

If you are under 40 years old, you weren't here yet. If you are at least 50, you probably have some recollection of one of the greatest moments in the history of sports.

There are certain moments that sports fans simply don't forget, and that was one for me.

It was April 8, 1974, around 8:45 p.m., about 15 minutes from my bed time.

Whew. Hank came through just in time. I never expected any less.

I was just 10 years old, and a baseball fanatic. I loved the game, played it, watched it, read about it, listened to it, and lived for the rare moments when it was on TV, either on Saturday afternoons or Monday nights, although the rabbit ears on the TV had to be turned just right to get ABC.

Whine as I might, my bed time at age 10 was 9 p.m., and I had to be there whether Aaron hit his home run before then or not.

I remember sitting on shag carpet in the TV room in our home near Huddleston, Va., with a piece of notebook paper attached to a clipboard keeping score — some things never change — and hoping that Hank would go deep before I had to sleep.

It was a rainy night in Atlanta, but Fulton County Stadium was packed to the rafters, with all of them hoping to witness history. I was just a little boy with big dreams, watching one my heroes going for a record that I really didn't understand all those years ago.

He came through, just like he did so many times before. Poor Al Downing. He won 123 games in 17 mostly consistent years and all he is ever remembered for is the pitch that Aaron hit over the left field fence.

It was caught, thank goodness, by Tom House in the bullpen, who ran to home plate to give Aaron the ball. Imagine if the ball had landed in the stands. Who knows how much money that ball would have brought?

I can still see Aaron running around the bases, and a few fans following him around, slapping him on the back and trying to get close to the hero of the night.

Of course, that had to have been a scary for Aaron, with all he had faced to get to that point, including death threats, all because a black man dared to break a record held by a white man, who was more myth than reality to most of us. In some ways, Babe Ruth will always be myth.

I never saw another at-bat in that game. It was off to bed, but at least I was able to see history made.

Not long after that, my father, who was always slipping me a quarter or dollar to buy packs of baseball cards, got me a full color poster of that home run. It stayed on my wall at two or three houses over the years, and I sure wish I still had it.

Much has happened over the last 40 years, but that is a moment that will never be forgotten.

I am now 50, but can still recall some parts of that night when Aaron went deep. It didn't occur to me at the time, but Aaron was 40, just barely younger than my parents, when he went deep.

Aaron is now 80. Forty didn't seem that old back then, but 50 sure does now, especially when the AARP papers arrive and you are offered senior citizen discounts — that has been happening for a while now. (Getting older isn't all bad).

It is doubtful I will ever get to meet Aaron, but I did have a connection. There was a time when I collected autographs, sending letters to players and hoping for a response, with no money changing hands.

Imagine that? He sent me an autographed photo from his days with the Brewers. I cherished that signature, along with an album full of baseball stars, from Pete Rose and Johnny Bench to Brooks Robinson, Joe Morgan and Bobby Grich.

Years ago, during one of our many family moves, those autographs disappeared. Oh, how I miss those now.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was covering the Bristol White Sox at DeVault Stadium and there was a man in an adjacent cubicle, who turned out to be a scout checking out the players below.

He knew a thing about baseball heroes. I may never get to meet Aaron, one the heroes of my youth, but I did get to talk baseball with his son that night.

It still bothers me to this day — and I even told his son — that Aaron was not only the greatest to play the game, but also the most underrated player in baseball history. He didn’t disagree with me.

The numbers speak for themselves. Aaron still holds the all-time mark for runs batted (2,297, 83 more than Ruth) and total bases (6,856, 722 more than Stan Musial) and should still be tops in home runs with 755 (Barry Bonds finished with a tarnished 762).

He is fourth all-time in runs (2,174), third in hits (3,771), 10th in doubles (624) and walked 19 more times than he struck out. This from a slugger, who had 20 straight seasons with at least 20 home runs, hitting at least 40 and 30 seven times apiece.

Aaron did all that, won three gold gloves, a World Series, one MVP (yes, just one) and remained one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen. Yet, Aaron is still overshadowed by such names as Ruth, Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams, all of whom played in New York or close to it.

Much like Stan Musial, Aaron never received the credit he deserved. At least Aaron wasn’t left off the All-Century team from a few years ago. Musial was, and was fortunately added to the team.

Neither played in a major TV market, but both are among the greatest to play the game. Yet, Aaron may, indeed, have been the greatest, but he would never tell you so. That just wasn’t Aaron-like.

There was a time when DiMaggio — who had an ego larger than Yankee Stadium — would refuse to attend Old-Timer's Day and other functions if he wasn't introduced as the 'greatest living ballplayer.'

His request was always honored, but fans of Hank Aaron knew...

He wasn’t.  

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@bdtonline.com or on Twitter, @bdtwoodson.

 

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