Celebrating Aaron, a true American treasure
ATLANTA -- This felt so much like April 8, 1974, when the world changed forever regarding the most significant number in sports. First, just as it was 40 years ago, an Atlanta Major League ballpark was packed Tuesday night. Not only that, the man of the moment back then returned for this occasion, and he was smothered again with the same kind of love: Endless cheers from teary-eyed folks on their feet for the longest time to honor baseball royalty.
OK, there were a few differences between then and now.
Here's the big one: To no fault of his own, the man of the moment was a hero only to some back then after he launched the 715th home run of his career to make Babe Ruth just another guy on the all-time list. Now, except for those a little goofy in the head, Henry Louis Aaron is considered by the masses to rank somewhere between waving the flag on the Fourth of July and enjoying "I Love Lucy" reruns when it comes to the essence of Americana.
As for the smaller differences ...
The old ballpark was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and it has been replaced by a parking lot next to the new one called Turner Field. While the night back then was recovering from an afternoon of rain and cold, this night featured just a slight chill after a day of sunshine. Mostly, the man of the moment back then was hugged as he sauntered to home plate in his No. 44 for the Braves along the way to ripping a pitch over the fence in left-center field for the 715th home run of his career. On Tuesday night, that same man of the moment spent a pregame celebration in his honor wearing a brown suit, gray vest and gold tie. There was no sauntering this time. Due to a surgically repaired hip, he moved slowly with a walker to reach the podium near home plate.
Aaron is 80 years old, but except for those aches and pains resulting from slipping on Atlanta's unforgiving ice in February, his face and his mind are as fresh as they were back then.
I've known Aaron for more than 30 years, and we've chatted often about everything you can name. That said, I never heard him better than a few days ago, when we huddled for an exclusive interview for CNN. The subjects were many. Still, given that baseball this season is in the spirit of 715, let's stay in that mindset. Let's return to the fourth inning on April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Aaron swung at a pitch from the Dodgers' Al Downing during that nationally televised game on Monday night and watched the ball sail toward history.
So many little-big things happened between Aaron heading toward first and reaching home plate.
Despite supposedly tight security, there were those two young spectators who leaped from the stands to join Aaron in a haphazard way during his home-run trot from second to third. There also were those series of loud pops. They came from firecrackers commissioned by the Braves to celebrate the record. Even so, the noise was unsettling when you consider this: Aaron spent much of his Ruth chase battling a vicious collection of hate mail and death threats.
"A really good friend of mine was on the police department at the time, three weeks before any of this ever happened, and the mayor at the time, Maynard Jackson, had told him that he wanted him to be with me for the last few weeks of the season," Aaron told me during the CNN interview. "And I don't know if you noticed, but in pictures, [my undercover policeman] had a little thing around his neck. Inside that little thing was a snub-nose .32.
"He told me, 'Hank, I just didn't know what to do when you started running around the bases and those two guys started running behind you.' I said, 'I'm glad you didn't shoot, because those two guys were having nothing but fun.' They had already said that if I had hit a home run that night, they were in kneeling position, and they were going to run out on the field. So I said, 'I'm glad you didn't pull that pistol out.' "
So were those two guys.
Aaron laughed, recalling another time early during his Ruth chase when he, along with everybody else associated with the Braves, really did think firecrackers were something else.
"Actually, there were two or three times in Montreal," Aaron said. "Jokingly, [some Expos fans] lit a bunch of firecrackers and threw them on the field."
Then Aaron laughed more, adding, "You should have seen the ballplayers ducking and hiding during the game.
"No one was sitting next to me."
In contrast, everybody in the Western Hemisphere wished to surround Aaron 40 years ago after he reached home plate. He was mobbed by teammates, fans and reporters. To his delight, the person who arrived first was his mother, Estella. She sprinted from her seat next to Hank's father, Herbert, to celebrate with her son during his evolution from youth growing up in segregated Mobile, Ala., to black man serving as baseball's home run king just 27 years after his hero, Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier.
Mother and son hugged and hugged.
"I don't think much was said, because she was choking me so much," Aaron said, laughing. "I couldn't say much, but she was happy. And I was also."
The same was true of Aaron on Tuesday night, when the man of the moment smiled so often and brightly that, well, you couldn't tell if 715 had just drifted somewhere again into the Georgia night.
"You were cheering for me then, and you're here cheering for me now," he said. "I am very grateful for that."
America is grateful.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.