It was April 8, 1974. The Atlanta Braves were playing a home game against the L.A. Dodgers. Henry Aaron had already hit his 714th home run to tie Babe Ruth’s record. That evening, I played hooky from the night class I was teaching to listen to the game. On his second time at bat, Aaron rifled one over the left-field fence for No. 715. He circled the bases, and this was the announcer’s call:
“A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record by an all-time baseball idol. What a marvelous moment it is for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the world.” Then, Vince Scully went silent, letting his viewers absorb the moment.
Scully, arguably the greatest baseball announcer of all time, had made the call for arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Hank Aaron was a poor man from Mobile, Ala., who played in the Negro League for the Indianapolis Clowns at a starting salary of $200 a month.
“I think there was more talent in that league than in the majors,” Aaron said.
Aaron ultimately hit 758 four-baggers, a record that would hold for 32 years until it was finally eclipsed by Barry Bonds. When Bonds heard of Aaron’s death, he said, “Thanks for all you have taught us … for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ballplayers who came after you.”
I called Carl Erskine, the retired Anderson banker who pitched for the Dodgers from 1945 to 1958, and who toward the end of his career faced Aaron multiple times.
Anticipating my first question, Erskine remarked, “He hit five home runs off of me, but that’s OK, because he hit 17 off of Don Drysdale (a Dodger Hall of Famer). His home runs were bullets — screaming line drives.”
Erskine, who faced the likes of Willie Mays and Stan Musial, was most impressed with how easy Aaron made it look. His pitching teammate, Preacher Roe, once told Erskine, “He hits like he’s taking a shower.” Aaron had no weaknesses. He could hit the ball anywhere near the plate.
“Attack the ball before it attacks you,” he once told Erskine.
Hank Aaron battled the same brutal racism other Black players faced, and the intensity of the hate grew as he approached Babe Ruth’s record. Carl knew exactly how Aaron felt, for Carl had befriended Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball’s first African American player.
In one of his final interviews, Aaron was asked if he had any regrets. The answer from one of the humblest men in the history of the sport was, “Yes, all the men I left on base.”