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Remembering Aaron's Quiet, Courageous Chase

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Remembering Aaron's Quiet, Courageous Chase

Sports

Remembering Aaron's Quiet, Courageous Chase

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds remains two home runs away from one of the biggest records in sports - it's the career record for the most home runs in baseball. Hank Aaron owns that record with 755. Back when Aaron was chasing the record the number was 714 home runs. The man who set it was Babe Ruth, and Aaron's pursuit became a national obsession.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Hank Aaron was up next. It was April 8th, 1974 and the man nicknamed "Hammerin' Hank" was about to bat for a second time that night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. His career home run total stood at 714 - tied with Babe Ruth.

Up in the broadcast booth at Atlanta Stadium, NBC Sportscaster Curt Gowdy and his colleagues watched as the fans began to rise up out of their seats.

(Soundbite of NBC broadcast)

Mr. CURT GOWDY (Sportscaster): …and another standing ovation, number five, Joe, for him.

Mr. JOE GARAGIOLA (Sportscaster): He's going to set all kinds of records tonight - fantastic. I'll tell you, you've got feel the excitement.

GOLDMAN: A record crowd of nearly 54,000 certainly felt it. Fans held signs reading "Slam It, Hank." The stands were draped in bunting. Aaron's Atlanta Braves teammate and good friend Dusty Baker felt the buzz. But he also sensed something else when Aaron turned to him before heading to the plate.

Mr. DUSTY BAKER (Former Player and Manager, Major League Baseball): He said, I'm going to get it over with right now. He said, I'm tired of this. I'm going to get it over with.

GOLDMAN: Baker knew that if Aaron had gotten as much love before this night, maybe he wouldn't have been so tired of this.

Mr. BAKER: You know, it wasn't a very happy time. It wasn't nearly as happy as it should have been.

(Soundbite of song "Move over, Babe")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Move over, Babe. Here comes Henry. And he's playing to me. Move over, Babe. Hank hit another, just break that 714.

GOLDMAN: Even as radio stations pumped out a cheery ode to Aaron, called "Move Over, Babe," the home run pursuit was fraying around the edges. Aaron was hailed on the road, but Braves' home crowds in 1973 were so small it prompted headlines around the nation, such as "Aaron Playing in Relative Secrecy."

Some say it was because the team wasn't winning; others believe it was a Southern response to a black man challenging the legend of a white sports icon. The hate letters were proof of a racial backlash. One read, quote, "You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move."

Some of the threats were specific enough to prompt FBI protection for Aaron's family. Aaron had a bodyguard, but as a public figure there were plenty of times when he was exposed.

Like in the dugout during one game, when Dusty Baker says he and teammate Ralph Garr ignored Aaron's warning to stay away.

Mr. BAKER: I remember one day he told us not to sit by him because somebody was going to shoot him that day. And we were like, oh, Hank, we're down with you, man. You know, and me and Ralph were looking the whole time and he wasn't even - he wasn't looking, acting like he wasn't afraid at all.

GOLDMAN: Aaron revealed little about the threats and taunts even to his closest teammates.

Mr. BAKER: Hank was kind of like your dad, says Baker, who goes to work and you know work's not always rosy but Dad never tells you about it.

GOLDMAN: Still, Aaron was not afraid to talk to the many reporters who flocked to him about the racial aspects of his quest.

Mr. HANK AARON (Former Player, Major League Baseball): I suppose if it was a Roger Maris or Mickey Mantle or Harmon Killebrew, or one of the white players probably going for this record, it wouldn't be much as far as them talking about whether they want Babe Ruth's record broken or not.

GOLDMAN: In the end, they had no choice. Aaron's talent, consistency and powerful wrists drove him inexorably toward Ruth's record.

(Soundbite of NBC broadcast)

Mr. GOWDY: A ball to him. Now they boo Al Downing again. Now he's keeping that ball low and away from him…

GOLDMAN: And by April 8th, 1974, most fans, even from Atlanta, were on board. A poll from the time showed 77 percent wanted Aaron to pass the Babe.

(Soundbite of NBC broadcast)

Mr. GOWDY: Aaron in his earlier days used to hit more to right, right center than to left…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. GOWDY: There's a long drive. The ball's hit deep, deep, and it's gone. Henry Aaron is the all-time home run leader now…

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of fireworks)

GOLDMAN: He would hit 40 more in his career to set the mark of 755, which Barry Bonds will soon break. Bonds will have the number, but the ambivalence surrounding his pursuit may ensure that Aaron retains the status he achieved finally on that April 8th evening.

There are no "Move Over, Hank" songs on the radio; 755 may live on as baseball's true mark of power and dignity.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Your opinion of Barry Bonds may depend, in part, on your race. Commentator John Ridley explores why in his new blog, "Visible Man," at npr.org.

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