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40 Years Ago Aaron Hit #715

April 8, 2014
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

Can it really be that 40 years have passed since Henry Aaron lined a pitch from Al Downing over the left-centerfield fence at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to move past Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list? I was 15 years old at the time and, back then, 40 years seemed like an eternity. Heck, the six months Aaron was sitting on 713 homers during the off-season seemed like an eternity.

Forty years after the fact, history, chemistry, and a sense of irony cause me to consider Aaron’s final total of 755 home runs from three different perspectives. With homer number 715, Aaron became the player with the most home runs in major league history; he never became the greatest home-run hitter of all time. That is a distinction that belongs to the Babe and I do not see anyone dethroning the Sultan of Swat any time soon.

As I frequently point out, Ruth hit his 714 home runs in 10,622 plate appearances while Aaron hit number 715 in his 12,717th trip to the plate. That doesn’t mean there should be an asterisk by Aaron’s total; he hit more home runs than any other player, but that doesn’t make him the greatest home run hitter of all time.

As I think back to the night Aaron hit number 715, many memories come to mind. Downing basically pitched around Aaron in his first at-bat. I remember Dodgers’ left fielder, Bill Buckner, hanging on the fence as if he had a chance to actually catch the ball; Billy Buck probably wishes that was the lasting memory most fans have of his career. Braves’ reliever Tom House caught the home run ball well into the hometown bullpen. Who can forget the two yahoos who ran onto the field and patted Aaron on the back between second and third base? And then there was Mrs. Estella Aaron, Henry’s mom, clutching her son tightly around the neck, so proud and so relieved at the same time.

I also remember the controversy leading up to the big game. Aaron took care of business on home run 714 with a bolt of lightning at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on Opening Day. The Braves, in a heavy-handed PR move, announced that Aaron would not play in the remaining games in Cincinnati in order to give him a chance at breaking the record–and packing the park–at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with that decision, as the team and the manager should be setting the lineup; but they should have had more sense than make such an announcement.

It was at this point that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who always claimed to have “the best interest of baseball” in mind, got in on, and caused, the controversy. Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron in at least one of the two remaining games in the Cincinnati series. The Braves, of course, were outraged. Aaron sat out the second game, but was back in the lineup the following day. He struck out looking in his first two at-bats while grounding out third-to-first in his third time up. The Braves replaced him defensively in the sixth inning.

After the game, some writers suggested that Aaron was not giving it his all in the game because he resented Kuhn’s interference. Aaron, of course, denied such an accusation, but it was easy to see why the writers would have jumped to that conclusion. I remember Aaron arguing both third-strike calls, something he rarely did; but I must admit that the same thought ran through my head when I was following the game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Even though Aaron played in the series finale, Kuhn was not finished poking the slugger and his team in the eye. Kuhn decided, I suppose in “the best interest of baseball,” that he had bigger fish to fry than attend the upcoming series against the Dodgers in which Aaron broke the record. It seems that Kuhn thought it more appropriate to attend a meeting of the Yahoo Club in Cleveland than to be on hand in the event that the most recognizable record in sports history were to fall. Kuhn sent public relations specialist, Monte Irvin, instead. Kuhn’s absence is a slight that I’m sure Aaron still resents.

I’ll cover the chemistry perspective rather quickly as anyone interested in baseball to the point that they are reading this blog knows right off the bat that I’m talking about the effect of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) on the record book. The man listed in the record book with the most home runs is not the legitimate career leader. An asterisk beside his total is not enough to correct the injustice of him hitting more home runs that Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and a long list of other sluggers. That man’s statistics should be stricken altogether.

The Braves have a grand celebration scheduled to mark the 40th anniversary of the record-breaking home run. I’m sure plenty of Aaron’s former teammates will be there, as will many local and national dignitaries. And this time, the Commissioner of Baseball will be there, as well. This is where irony enters into the situation.

There perhaps is no bigger fan of Henry Aaron than Bud Selig. Years ago when Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves, Selig and Aaron became friends and Selig engineered the deal and crafted the contract that allowed Aaron to play the final two seasons of his career in Milwaukee. Selig frequently seeks Aaron’s advice and attends many charity events the former slugger headlines.

But Selig is the commissioner who kept his head in the sand while the PED epidemic infected baseball. He rammed through inner league play and gave the home field advantage to the league who wins the All-Star Game in reaction to the mid-summer exhibition ending in a tie in 2002. But he apparently could not be moved to action when players were hitting over 60 home runs in a season with alarming regularity; one player did it three times while not even lead his league in homers in any of those seasons. He finally got on board with a testing and punishment program, but his inaction officially wiped out baseball’s two most cherished records: Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 and Aaron’s career total of 755.

I find it ironic that Selig will be in Atlanta on this historic anniversary when the commissioner at the time could not tear himself away from a booster club meeting in Cleveland. But, if Bud Selig had been more like Bowie Kuhn, and acted in the best interest of baseball, then he would not only be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s historic achievement, he could also introduce Aaron as baseball’s reigning Home Run King.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 8, 2014 11:28 am

    Very cool article. Am I crazy or was I at your house when Aaron hit 715? If we were 15, I don’t know how I would have gotten there, but I very clearly remember being in your living room with your family when the ball cleared the fence. Do you remember me being there?

    Like

    • April 8, 2014 3:12 pm

      I believe you were there. I actually was going to include that you and the late Roy Nolan were in attendance, but I don’t trust my memory as much as I used to. Roy got frustrated when Downing pitched around Aaron in his first at-bat, so he left to get some snacks for everyone and walked back into the house about the time Aaron was rounding third on the homer–at least that’s how I remember it here 40 years later. Maybe Roy picked you up and brought you to our house. One of these days I’m going to come to terms with Bonds having more homers than Aaron; I’m thinking that will happen in about 40 more years. Take care.

      Like

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