I was a baseball-crazed kid who was hyperventilating about the chance to watch Hank Aaron make history by blasting his 715th homer to break Babe Ruth’s record.
Could he do it tonight? Would he do it tonight? The game was on the television in my family’s apartment in Jersey City so I eagerly waited for Aaron’s at-bats.
There was only one problem: My bedtime.
I was nine years old on April 8, 1974, and I had a bedtime of 9 p.m. While my parents had obviously agreed to let me watch Aaron’s pursuit of history, I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to watch all nine innings. Not on a school night. Once 9 p.m. came, I realized I would be fighting to see each extra pitch. Realistically, Aaron needed to go deep in one of his first two at-bats for me to go to bed with a smile on my face.
As Aaron was greeted with a standing ovation before his second at bat in the fourth inning, I was anxious. As a rabid fan, I had cheered enthusiastically for teams to succeed, but I had never cheered so much for one at-bat. I desperately wanted Aaron to hit the home run off Al Downing at that moment. So I clenched my fists, inched closer to the TV and even prayed. I prayed for one mighty swing.
And Aaron provided that swing, the quickest of wrists moving the bat through the strike zone and the baseball soaring to left-center field like a lightning bolt. I screamed and jumped off my couch, the excitement of a nine-year old who was seeing his love of baseball unfold on the screen. As Aaron took his celebratory and surprisingly cluttered trip around the bases, I finally allowed myself to peek at the clock. It was 9:06. Indeed, like millions of other kids who had the same bedtime, I went to sleep with a smile on my face.
From that moment on, any mention of Aaron brought me back to being nine years old. Even after I became a sports journalist and had the chance to write about Aaron in The New York Times, and even sit beside him at a baseball dinner, a part of me was still nine.
When I learned that Aaron had passed away at the age of 86 on Friday, I felt extreme sadness for his family and friends and then I harkened back to the historic moment in Atlanta. Yes, I was a nine-year old fan again.
Although I celebrated that moment and much of the country celebrated that moment, not everyone did. As a kid, I wasn’t fully aware of how horribly Aaron had been treated by some malcontents as he moved toward eclipsing Ruth’s hallowed record. Sadly, Aaron had received death threats and racist letters because there were some idiots who didn’t want to see a black man replace a white man in the record books. That’s sickening and pathetic. Still, somehow, Aaron maintained his grace and his composure, and exhibited the class that made him such a special person and a special player.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron made his debut with the Braves in 1954, played 23 seasons and became one of the greatest players ever with 3,771 hits, an all-time best 2,297 RBIs and 755 homers, which was a record until it was broken by Barry Bonds in 2007.
His full name was Henry Louis Aaron. When Joe Torre was the Yankees manager, he would tell stories about Aaron, and he often called his former teammate “Henry.” For some reason, I loved that. It sounded more authoritative and more regal, and it made me feel as if Torre was sharing something extra special with us.
As Bonds crept closer to Aaron’s record, I covered his chase for The Times. Because of the suspicion that Bonds had used performance-enhancing drugs during his career, his pursuit of Aaron created a conundrum for many fans. It wasn’t celebrated in the way that such an attempt should have been celebrated. Even if Bonds surpassed Aaron, some fans said they would always recognize Aaron as the true home run king.
On the August night in which Bonds hit his record-setting 756th homer off Mike Bacsik, the Giants played a video-taped message from Aaron on their scoreboard. Aaron, who had mostly avoided discussing Bonds’ alleged steroid use, gave a classy speech in which he said he would “move over” for Bonds, tacitly acknowledging Bonds as the new home run champ.
Before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, all of the players gathered near the mound because Ted Williams, the Red Sox icon who was sitting in a green golf cart, was talking about hitting before he threw out the first pitch. It was a magical and emotional scene. Once the players started to disperse, I noticed that Aaron jogged across the infield to have a brief conversation with Derek Jeter. Aaron sought out Jeter because he wanted tell the Yankees shortstop that he liked the way Jeter played the game.
“Can you believe that?,” Jeter said, at the time, his voice a mixture of reverence and shock.
Soon after that Aaron-Jeter conversation, I also experienced Aaron’s kindness. As the emcee of the New York baseball writers dinner, I sat between Aaron and George Steinbrenner. I knew the Yankees owner well and had spoken to him dozens of times, but I had never been in Aaron’s company. When I told Aaron I was antsy about speaking in front of over 1,000 people, he helped relax me with a few reassuring words. And, as always, when I spoke to Aaron, I felt like I was nine years old again.