Braves celebrate Hank Aaron and we still marvel at his life, career

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones shares story of teammates and opponents' first reaction to meeting Braves great Henry Aaron, who died at the age of 86.

Hank Aaron sat on No. 713 for 183 days. That’s half a year. He drew within one home run of Babe Ruth on Sept. 29, 1973. It was a Saturday night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where an announced crowd of 17,836 saw the him reach base four times against Houston. In the fifth inning, he hit a three-run homer off Jerry Reuss.

He entered the Braves’ final series – they finished fifth in the National League West, 22-1/2 games behind Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine – hitting .291. Aaron went 6-for-7 with a walk over Games No. 161 and 162, which lifted his batting average to .301. He finished with an OPS of 1.045, the second-highest mark of his career and the best of any MLB batter in 1973, though he missed enough games (42) to render him a non-qualifier for official leadership.

He hit No. 713 on a Saturday when Georgia beat 19th-ranked North Carolina State, as coached by Lou Holtz, in Athens. Georgia Tech, which started 0-2 under coach Bill Fulcher, beat Clemson at Grant Field, four miles from Aaron’s workplace. The urge to witness history inspired a Sunday gathering of 40,517 on the regular season’s final day. Before then, the ’73 Braves hadn’t seen a home crowd of even 30,000.

Aaron had three singles that day, leaving history on hold. He said, “All I have to do to break (Babe Ruth’s) record is stay alive,” which wasn’t just a glib line. The death threats, racially driven, had commenced. The U.S. Postal Service announced that, in 1973, no American non-politician received more mail than Henry Louis Aaron.

So, as the Braves celebrate Hank Aaron Weekend – he died Jan. 22; he was 86 – we think back to that autumn weekend in 1973. As much as Aaron wanted to get the record-tying and record-surpassing home runs out of the way, he was left with six months to think and read and contemplate how those moments might play out. Having six months to wait, especially while knowing some percentage of the populace was hoping the moment would never come, could have unsettled a lesser man.

This was no lesser man. This was the most consistent player in the history of a sport that, more than any other, measures consistency. Aaron hit .300 when he was 21 – and when he was 39. From his second season through his 21st, he hit no more than 47 homers and no fewer than 20. He graced every All-Star Game from 1955 through 1975. Sometimes he was overshadowed by contemporaries Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson, but when Aaron’s career was done and you ran the numbers, here’s what you got: most home runs ever, most RBIs ever, most total bases ever, second-most runs ever, second-most hits ever.

At a time when he had the spotlight to himself – Clemente died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972; Mays retired after the ’73 season – Aaron was left to sit in a figurative green room from Sept. 30 through April 3. Every media person who descended on spring training in West Palm Beach wanted an audience with Aaron. He and the Braves tried to accommodate. But how many times can you be asked, “When do you think it’ll happen?” without screaming in someone’s face?

The Braves’ 1974 season began in Cincinnati on Thursday, April 3. Tornadoes had made for a harrowing Wednesday. Xenia, Ohio, and Brandenburg, Ky., were devastated. Folks in the mid-Ohio Valley got little sleep. The Reds’ opener, usually a festive occasion, was almost an afterthought.

Then Aaron came to bat. With his first swing of the new season, he drove Jack Billingham’s 3-1 sinker over the wall in left-center. The man who’d waited half a year had waited long enough.

His next home run – four nights later in Atlanta off Al Downing – broke Ruth’s record and remains the greatest sporting moment in this city’s history. We remember the 714th much less, but it warrants a special place. It was Aaron’s way of saying, “You thought I’d be nervous? I’ve been doing this all my life.”

The scoreboard at Riverfront Stadium flashed “714” – for a visiting player. The game stopped. Vice President Gerald Ford took the microphone and shook Aaron’s hand. Bowie Kuhn, who would infamously miss No. 715 because of a pressing engagement in Cleveland, was on hand for this. He called Aaron “one of the great professionals ever to play this game and one of the great gentlemen.” Bill Bartholomay, who brought the Braves south from Milwaukee, presented a plaque. Aaron thanked the crowd and said, “I’m glad it’s almost over.”

Six months of anticipation. One swing of sweet relief. The great professional returned to work and, as ever, tended to business.

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