The magic number
Hank Aaron made history 30 years ago by setting perhaps the most significant record in sports history.
On that historic night 30 years ago, members of the Braves bullpen were assigned, by seniority, stations along the outfield fence in case Hank Aaron went deep. Left-hander Tom House, one of the young pitchers, was given left-center, not a prime spot: Aaron tended to hook the ball down the left-field line. Instead, home run 715 went to left center, where House caught it. "I never even moved," House said. He delivered the ball to home plate.
"Hank was crying," House said. "I'd never seen Hank cry."
That's how big, how emotional, how famous a home run it was. It is bigger than Mazeroski, Thomson, Gibson, Carter, Fisk. It is there with Maris' 61st and McGwire's 62nd, one of the three biggest homers in history. It might be the biggest given its depth and reach.
Aaron became the all-time home run king, replacing Babe Ruth, the greatest player in baseball history by virtually any measure. Ruth had dominated his era like no player, perhaps in any sport. Ruth had become the career leader with home run No. 139; the final 575 just added to his record. His record lasted 42 years. His stunning power had rescued the game in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Ruth was an icon, he remains the most legendary player in baseball annals. By breaking Ruth's record, Aaron had joined two distinctly different eras, and allowed us to again celebrate Ruth's greatness.
The setting of the record was even more important because Aaron is African-American. The country was in a time of change in 1974, and even though Aaron's record was not embraced by all of America -- he received hate mail and death threats during the pursuit -- in a way he helped bring the nation together. He did a great deal for the cause of minorities.
And he set a record that is close to all of us. The home run is ours. There is nothing comparable in sports to the home run, nothing that better connects us to our American sporting past. It is so individual, so hard to do. We love home runs more than any athletic feat, more than kickoff returns for touchdowns and 3-pointers at the buzzer. We mark seats in stadiums where long homers land; the single red seat in the distant reaches of Fenway's green right-field bleachers where one of Ted Williams' bombs settled. We point to the transformer that Reggie Jackson hit in the '71 All-Star Game in Detroit; Tiger fans say Kirk Gibson cleared it by 10 feet off Boston's Mike Brown in '84. Someone left the park to find where it hit in the lumberyard across the street. The Detroit Free Press reported it was still 20 feet short of a ball that Ruth had hit into that lumberyard.
Home run No. 715 came on national TV, long before the proliferation of games on cable TV. It was an event -- a game on a weekday night -- and Aaron delivered off the Dodgers' Al Downing. Hank Aaron, the first name in the alphabetized Baseball Encyclopedia, became the all-time home run champ. How appropriate is that? The most recognizable number in sports -- 714 -- had been broken. Baseball numbers are different from numbers in other sports. Everyone knows what .300, .400, 60, 100 and 714 stand for. But what is a great yardage total for a quarterback in a season? What's a huge season point total for an NBA player? You have to think about it. Only in baseball are the numbers so defined and so revered.
Someday, perhaps, Barry Bonds will break Aaron's record, but with all due respect to the brilliant Bonds, it won't be the same. Aaron broke Ruth's record, one that had never been seriously approached. Aaron broke it in an era when the home run was significant, as opposed to today, when it is overexposed and devalued. In 1974, no one had hit 50 in a season since Willie Mays in 1965. Last year was the first time since 1994 that there wasn't a 50-home run man. When Aaron hit 714, he was one of only 11 players with 500 career home runs, only 15 players had 400. Now, we have 19 players with 500, and 36 with 400 -- over twice as many as in 1974. In 10 years, there's probably going to be 30 guys with 500 home runs and perhaps four players -- Bonds, Aaron, Ruth and Sosa -- with 700.
It was a different time then. It was more about the game and less about celebrity, chest-thumping, raising the roof and long home runs shown relentlessly on ESPN. It was about a shy right fielder who quietly snuck up on 700 home runs by blasting a record 245 of them after turning 35. He first passed Mays, which wasn't greeted warmly everywhere because some people thought it should be Mays, not Aaron, to break Ruth's amazing record.
Many years after he retired, Aaron played in an old timers' game in Texas. After one at-bat, he was interviewed on the field by some broadcast nitwit who asked him, "Hank, tell us about that historic 755th home run." Aaron smiled, gracious as ever, and said "well, most people ask me about 715." In this, the 30-year anniversary, he will be asked about 715 repeatedly. It is a question that can't be asked enough. It was that big, that great, that historic.
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