Aaron was normally not an excitable sort. One observer remarked that Aaron seemed to be looking for a place to sit down when he approached the batter’s box. Robin Roberts once remarked that Aaron was the only batter he knew that “could fall asleep between pitches and still wake up in time to hit the next one.”
On a muggy April night in Atlanta in 1974, relief pitcher Tom House carried a baseball in from the left-field bullpen. When he handed the ball that had eclipsed the most important record in baseball to the unemotional record breaker, House reported that there were tears in Aaron’s eyes. Perhaps the emotion was in response to his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s career record, but more likely it was in thanks that the ordeal was finally over. It was an ordeal similar to the one undergone by Roger Maris 13 summers earlier, one difference being that Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth had racial implications to many. Aaron received hate mail and death threats and, when he failed to get number 714 at the end of the 1973 season, he left an entire off-season for speculation and building expectations. The tears may have been the reaction to a giant weight being lifted off his shoulders.
Aaron was able to become the all-time home run champ by sustaining a relatively unspectacular but remarkably consistent career. He was never hurt badly enough to be out of the lineup for an extended period of time. He was not a particularly aggressive base runner, so his legs suffered little wear and tear. He controlled his weight throughout his career. His remarkable physical condition allowed him to average 33 HR a year, hitting between 24 and 45 HR for 19 straight years. He drove in more than 100 runs 15 times, including a record 13 seasons in a row. He was an All-Star in each of the 23 seasons he played. Sometimes lost among the home run hullaballoo are Aaron’s two batting titles and four Gold Gloves for his play in right field. He was consistent and dangerous, and he quickly gained the respect he was to enjoy through his entire career. Early in his career, the Braves played the Dodgers with Jackie Robinson at third. Aaron twice faked bunts, but Robinson didn’t budge. After the game, Aaron asked him why he didn’t move in. Robinson told him, “We’ll give you first base anytime you want it.”
Aaron had an understated style that could make him look lazy. He wasn’t. He didn’t play high school ball in Mobile, Alabama, which somehow hatched the strange story that he batted crosshanded early in his career. He played semi-pro ball when he was 15, and was the shortstop for two seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro leagues. In May 1952, the Braves paid $7,500 for Aaron, who spent the next season and a half tearing up three different minor and winter leagues. He desegregated the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson broke a leg in spring training to open a spot. Aaron joined a powerful lineup featuring Eddie Mathews and Del Crandall that needed a final link.
Aaron won his first batting title in 1956, his third ML season. He came close to the Triple Crown the following year with league bests of 44 homers and and 132 RBI, but he finished third in the batting race behind Stan Musial and Willie Mays. Aaron blamed an ankle injury (he twisted it when he stepped on a bottle thrown onto the field) for slowing him up at bat. One of those 1957 homers is reputedly Aaron’s own favorite: the homer that clinched the 1957 NL pennant. For his efforts that season, he won his only MVP award. In the Braves’ World Series win over the Yankees, he batted .393 with three more homers and seven RBI.
In 1959, Aaron won his second batting title with a .355 average and led the league in slugging with a .636 average. In that year’s All-Star Game, he singled in the tying run in the eighth inning, then scored the eventual winner on Mays’s triple. In 1963, he again threatened to win the Triple Crown. He led the league with 44 HR and 130 RBI, but again finished third in the batting race with a .319 average, beaten by Tommy Davis (.326) and Roberto Clemente (.320). He won HR titles in 1966, when he also won his final RBI crown, and in 1967, the Braves’ first two seasons in Atlanta. The Braves won a wild NL Western Division race in 1969, but lost in the LCS in three games to the Mets, despite an Aaron homer in each game, seven RBI, and a .357 average.
It was around this time that Aaron was acknowledged to be a serious threat to Ruth’s lifetime record. Heretofore soft-spoken and reserved, Aaron became more vociferous on the treatment of blacks in baseball’s upper echelon. In 1970, soon after collecting his 3,000th hit, he stated frankly: “I have to tell the truth, and when people ask me what progress Negroes have made in baseball, I tell them the Negro hasn’t made any progress on the field. We haven’t made any progress in the commissioner’s office. Even with Monte Irvin in there, I still think it’s tokenism. I think we have a lot of Negroes capable of handling front-office jobs. We don’t have Negro secretaries in some of the big league offices, and I think it’s time that the major leagues and baseball in general just took hold of themselves and started hiring some of these capable people.”
His quest for racial equality did not interrupt his chase of Ruth. In 1971, he had a career-high .669 slugging average and slammed 47 HR to climb to third place on the all-time list with 639, behind Ruth and Willie Mays. With 34 more in 1972, he passed Mays to go into second place. At the age of 39 in 1973, he cracked 40, the most HR ever for a player his age, ending the season one homer off the record. When the 1974 season opened, the Braves preferred he sit out the first series in Cincinnati so he’d hit the record shots in Atlanta. Aaron and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn thought not. And Aaron didn’t leave people in suspense long, hitting a 3-1 pitch off Jack Billingham in his second at-bat on Opening Day, the first homer to be struck at the new Riverfront Stadium. He sat out the next game before the scene shifted back to Atlanta. On April 8, a Monday night game on national TV, he leaned into a 1-0 fastball from Dodger lefty Al Downing. He hit the ball with his weight on his front foot, as was his custom, on a slow arc into the left-field bullpen, where reliever House made a nice catch. As he jogged around the bases, easily and emotionlessly with his head down, he was congratulated by the Dodger infielders. He was met at home plate by a small mob, including his mother.
Aaron finished the year with 20 homers. Soon after the season was over, the Braves sent him to Milwaukee, where he hit 22 HR in two seasons for the Brewers. He finished his career tops all-time in HR, RBI, total bases, and extra-base hits, second in at-bats and runs (tied with Ruth), and third in games played and hits (3,771). He currently works in the Braves’ front office. (ArB/SEW)