Hoisting Aaron after history: ‘Don’t drop him guys’

Marty Perez: A teammate

Marty Perez grew up in California idolizing Willie Mays. But after Perez reached the majors and enjoyed a decade-long career as an infielder, he had a new favorite player.

“I knew about Hank Aaron, but I never thought that I would ever get the opportunity to play four or five years with him (1971-74),” Perez said. “You don’t think about that when you’re 14 years old. And so when I got there, playing with the Braves – he was a gentleman. He took me out when I was on the road. He called me out for dinner and stuff like that.

“I really appreciated that he was very, very, very much of a gentleman and treated everybody pretty much the same. He became my favorite player, of course.”

Perez didn’t start the game the day that Aaron hit home run No. 715, breaking Babe Ruth’s record April 8, 1974 against the Dodgers. But he entered in the top of the fifth inning – a half frame after Aaron broke the record – at shortstop. He later singled and scored in the Braves’ 7-4 win.

“Oh, it might seem like it was yesterday,” Perez said. “That was a special day for everybody. We had so many journalists and newspaper people following us the whole the whole year (in 1973), especially toward the end of the year. It was pretty exciting. Henry had a lot of grief, really, during those years. Of course, he didn’t show it. But we knew what was going on. Finally, it happened. So that was great, a lot of pressure that was taken off him.”

Perez said the team completely supported Aaron, especially knowing the scrutiny he was enduring at that time from hateful people as a Black man about to break a white man’s record. Perez remembered Aaron telling him and teammates about getting a call from the FBI that someone had intended to try to shoot him on the field in New York one day. Teammates read some of the letters and hate mail that Aaron received during the 1973 season.

Yet Aaron continued to carry himself with grace.

“That was the big thing,” Perez said. “It really amazed all of us. … A lot of players, they were always looking out for him and making sure people coming into the clubhouse weren’t trying to do something. We always kept an eye on him.”

The Braves are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Aaron breaking the record Monday at Truist Park. Here’s Perez remembering that specific day:

“We were all anticipating it, especially with Al Downing pitching, he didn’t really throw that hard,” Perez said. “And Henry made a career out of some of those guys. So we were expecting him to hit a home run. I think it was the second at-bat (Aaron walked in his first plate appearance). When he hit that ball, we knew it was gone. Kind of a line drive, I remember. And we all came out of the dugout and celebrated with them. Some of the guys picked them up. Not very nice. I think they almost dropped him (laughs). ‘Don’t drop him, guys.’

“I remember it being a little chilly that night, too, so the ball wasn’t traveling that far. But he hit the ball pretty good, we knew it was going to be gone. We were very elated that he finally got it off his back.”