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Columnist Loran Smith on the life and legacy of the late baseball great Henry Aaron

Hammering Hank

 

When it came to hitting homeruns, Hank Aaron was to “the manor

born.” His familial origins, however, were not. His extraordinary ability to

hit a baseball would springboard him from segregated austerity into sports

immortality.

It was as if he emerged from the cradle with a Louisville Slugger in

his hands. No baseball slugger ever walked more softly and carried a

bigger stick. No champion was more resilient or brilliant. His style was the

most graceful of all. Always under measured control, he was picturesque

at the plate and had a classic and unhurried gait as he circled the bases.

While Jackie Robinson, his first hero, had broken baseball’s color

barrier in 1947, Aaron nonetheless faced discrimination and rebuke along

the way, being derided with hate mail and death threats as he approached the legendary Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 715.

He overcame it all, with a consistency of performance that was akin

to the tortoise besting the flamboyant hare to win the race. Did you ever

hear of Hank Aaron experiencing a slump? Having one too many? He never missed a weekend series, owing to injury. This cause Celebre always resided under the radar. The most homeruns he ever hit in one season was 47. Ruth’s season record of 60 homers was not likely to be erased by Aaron, but his career total of 714 was vulnerable with the Gulf Coast native.

Aaron didn’t hit tape measure homeruns. He never cracked jokes on

the Tonight Show. It wasn’t until 2002, when he was 68 years old, that his

image was featured on a Wheaties Box. Babe Ruth, lionized by his off the

field habits as much as his prodigious power, was the center of attention, while the laid-back Aaron was always the “Quiet” and reserved man.

Ruth trained on hot dogs and beer, but Aaron’s athletic frame was

nurtured by the soul food offerings from his mother’s kitchen in Mobile,

Alabama. He is the real homerun king, not the latent steroid abusers. Let

their Hall of Fame candidacies be damned. Let’s raise a toast to the real HR King, Henry Aaron.

The Babe could engender a headline by lighting a cigar. You seldom

heard from Aaron unless the subject of racial inequality came up. He was

always eager to speak up about racial and social injustice, something with which he was agonizingly familiar.

There are a couple of memorable intersections from the past

involving Babe Ruth, his records and Hammering Hank. Please indulge my

musings.

I got to know Babe Ruth’s adopted daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, who

was born in Athens. Her birth father is buried in Oconee Hills Cemetery.

After Roger Maris broke Ruth’s season record with 61 homeruns in 1961,

we met at the Atlanta Airport a couple of years later. I was returning from a

flight to Chapel Hill where Georgia had played North Carolina. Maris was headed somewhere and was changing planes at the old Atlanta Airport. He obviously did not want to be recognized.

Maris became perturbed when I knelt down beside him and began

making notes on an Eastern Air Lines cocktail napkin. He could see that

the scene was garnering attention and abruptly got up and headed for the

men’s room. As a stringer for the Atlanta Journal, I had enough for a brief

story and was not going to follow him into the bathroom.

So, meeting the two men who broke Babe Ruth’s two “unbreakable” records is something that hopefully might be of interest to my grandson, Alex, who is enrolling in Journalism this fall at Arizona State.

If you follow the sports beat, there are many highlights to enjoy if you are fortunate. I have always enjoyed meeting accomplished people and telling their stories.

There have been classic and milestone events to recall and revere.

Nothing could surpass being in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the night

of April 8, 1974 when Aaron hit Al Downing’s slider 385 feet over the left

field fence for his 715th home run.

I was the beneficiary of an invitation into Falcon Owner Rankin Smith’s suite when many of his friends had gathered, hoping that Aaron would make history that night. That he did not disappoint us will long be appreciated.

During Aaron’s era, there was a time when Vince Dooley and I went

over to see Aaron at a game during his last year as an Atlanta player. He

hit a home run early and left the game. The Bulldog coach and I met up

with him in the Braves locker room.

He told Vince how he had “baited” the pitcher. He crowded the plate

which caused the pitcher to pitch him inside. Suddenly, he stepped back from the plate and slammed the ball “outta here.”

They reminisced about two Mobile boys growing up in the same town,

each on the wrong side of the tracks. Vince has always considered Aaron

the best spokesman for racial equality in that few lived it more debilitating—but fewer managed it more profoundly.

Now, our parting shot with this story, which made the rounds for

years. Jim Minter, long time sportswriter for the Journal-Constitution,

remembers that Hank had a bothersome knee early in his career. A

concerned Braves executive called their precocious, young talent and inquired if his knee was troubling him.

“No sir,” Aaron said. “Only when I knelt to pray.”