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From the Archives: It was ‘peace at last’ for Hank Aaron after breaking home run mark

In this April 8, 1974, photo, the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run to break Babe Ruth's record.
On April 8, 1974, the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron connects against the Dodgers in Atlanta for his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record.
(Joe Holloway Jr. / Associated Press)

Editor’s note: This story originally published in The Times on April 10, 1974.

ATLANTA — The marquee on the International Hotel, across the street from Atlanta Stadium, read:

“Congratulations, Wilbur Moore . . . National Truck Driver of the Year.”

The neon billboard in front of the stadium read:

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“Dogwood Festival . . . April 6-14.”

Atlanta suddenly seems to have forgotten Henry Aaron, who less than 24 hours earlier had taken sole possession of baseball’s most celebrated by cracking his 715th home run amid the carnival atmosphere of the packed stadium.

Tuesday’s peaceful pace was fine with Henry Aaron.

“I feel great,” he said. “I feel relaxed for the first time in over a year. The average person just doesn’t understand what a nightmare this has been . . . all winter living with it, the same writers, the same questions, all winter, all spring.

“I’m glad it happened but I’m glad it’s over. It was quite an experience.”

Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974 despite enduring racism and went on to hit 755 homers in a 23-year career.

Aaron sat in front of his locker two hours before Tuesday night’s game with the Dodgers.

The dozens of writers who had confronted him there before and after each Atlanta home game over the last year were gone.

Aaron told a solitary visitor that he had partied with his wife parents and friends until 6 a.m.

“It wasn’t what you’d call a quiet party,” he said, smiling. “After I finally got to bed I had been sleeping only about four hours when the doorbell rang. I looked out the window, saw a photographer across the street and said to myself, ‘Oh, no. I thought it was all over.”

The doorbell and phone didn’t stop ringing, he said, and he received more than 1,000 telegrams.

Aaron said he was “too physically shot” to play in the second of four games against the Dodgers.

“What if the commissioner forces you to play,” he was asked, facetiously.

“I’m not interested in what the commissioner does,” he answered.

What he is interested in, and proud of, is what he has accomplished.

“Last night I said that when I woke up this morning I’d probably realize the significance of everything that had happened,” he said. “Well, I’m still not sure, but I do feel that the record is the greatest in baseball. As late as five years ago I still didn’t think I had a shot at it, but I worked hard for it, and in getting it I think I’ve achieved what I never quite achieved before.

“What I mean is that in many ways I’ve been slighted. I haven’t received the publicity and recognition that a lot of other players have. That’s probably behind me. Yes, I believe I should be right near the top of the list of great players. The best? I don’t know . . . Cobb, DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson. I don’t think I’m any lower than second or third.”

Barry Bonds, Magic Johnson, Stacey Abrams, Barack Obama, Vin Scully and Mike Trout are among those remembering baseball great Hank Aaron, who has died at 86.

It is his 21st season and he has said it will be his last. He is 40 years old and hit a remarkable 40 home runs last year. He said he is strong enough to do the same again this year. After that?

“I’ve never had a desire to manage, Aaron said, “but if there hasn’t been a Black manager by the time any offer is made, I might be interested. I want to stay in baseball, but I think I’d be more valuable in a front office capacity than as manager.”

What would his reaction have been if Monday’s mist had turned to rain and threatened to wash out his memorable home run before an official five innings were played? Aaron smiled that boyish smile and said:

“No chance. I’d have pulled out the tarp myself.”

::

Al Downing talked briefly with Henry Aaron at the batting cage Tuesday afternoon.

“I congratulated him,” said Downing. “I congratulated him on what he did last night, on what he has accomplished in his career and on being such a great inspiration.”

Al Downing threw the fastball that Aaron hit to pass Babe Ruth’s mark. Downing is a thoughtful, sensitive person, relatively low-key and unemotional, a man who does not change in victory or defeat.

Asked for his reflection, he said: “The only thing I thought about is that the home run tied the game and that we eventually lost. In a way, I’m glad he hit it, but I’m sorry it hurt our chances to win the game.”

Downing said he will not carry the memory of that moment with him and he doesn’t think other people will.

“Each home run will be a new record,” he said. “People will remember the last one, not this one. If they want to think of me only in terms of that home run, I can’t help it. I have to lead my life the way I want to lead it. I can’t be influenced by what other people think or by what they believe I think.”

::

Tom House studied business administration at USC and earned a master’s degree in marketing last winter.

House, however, may have displayed questionable business sense when he turned over to Aaron that was hit for No. 715.

The 27-year-old relief pitcher raced from the Atlanta bullpen to make the catch near the 385-foot sign in left center. He had been leaning against a sign that read, “Think of It As money,” but he disregarded that suggestion and sprinted to home plate and gave Aaron the ball.

“I had an emotional decision to make,” said House, reflecting. “It might have cost me a lot of money when I think about it later, but when you get right down to it, my thought was, ‘Sonofagun, he did it. I’m part of it. Get it to him.”

The Braves had been besieged with financial offers for the ball.

A group of Georgia businessmen offered $36,000.

However, it is part of Aaron’s $1 million endorsement contract with Magnavox Corp. that he turn over the home run memorabilia to Maganvox for a five-year period.

House, said Aaron, will receive a Magnavox TV.

“Money, money, money is all guys have been talking about,” said the relief pitcher. “They’ve been kidding me a lot, but I think every one of them would have done the exact same thing.”

“I’d told Hank before the game that if I caught it I’d give it back. Once I got to him, I pressed it into his hand and said, ‘Hammer, I told you I’d give it to you.’ And he said, ‘Thanks kid.”

::

House’s catch thwarted a rehearsal bid for the ball by Bill Buckner. He tried to climb the six-foot wire barrier to either (1) catch the ball before it went over or (2) retrieve it after it hit.

“I worked on it before the game,” the left fielder said. “I got to where I could make it over in eight-tenths of a second. I’d probably have ended up breaking my neck, but I had my mind made up.”

Letters to the Los Angeles Times sports department for Jan. 23.

Following the game Buckner said that he had found Aaron “unbelievable,” citing the manner in which he hit No. 714 on his first swing of the season and No. 715 on his first swing Monday night.

“I don’t understand it,” Buckner said Tuesday. “How can a guy hit 715 home runs? How can anybody hit that many? Take me. I wouldn’t hit 700 home runs in batting practice taking it all day for three straight months.”

::

Ron Cey, the Dodgers third baseman, said he wanted shake Aaron’s hand as he circled the bases, but then changed his mind.

“I didn’t want to interfere,” said the Penguin. “It was his show, he earned it. He’s Hank Aaron and I’m just another ballplayer.”

::

And Henry Aaron has a chance at another Ruth milestone. By having hit his second home run in only his fourth game, Aaron moved seven games ahead of Ruth’s 1927 pace when he hit 60.

“Oh, God,” said Aaron when the subject was raised. “Don’t mention records, any kind of records.”


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