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Looking back at people behind Hank Aaron's record 715th HR

Looking back at people behind Hank Aaron's record 715th HR Photo:

If he hadn’t been a baseball player, Henry Aaron might have been a carpenter. He was one of eight children, and when he wanted something, he usually had to make it himself. At age six he collected scrap lumber to help his family build their house in Mobile, Ala. He says he always enjoyed working with wood.

He did his best work with a bat, however. “I’m glad I went another way,” he says. “I figured out I could hit a baseball with [wood].”

The ball that crowned Aaron as the sport’s home run king was marked with serial number 12‑12‑2‑2 and with clubhouse attendant Bill Acree’s signature in invisible ink. Aaron hit number 715 into the Braves’ bullpen on April 8, 1974, to eclipse Babe Ruth’s record. But a moment that should have been among the happiest of his life was instead only a relief; he barely remembers rounding the bases.
The media scrutiny leading up to that moment had been intense: Reporters had to make appointments to speak with him, and they came from all specialties to cover the chase. (Braves radio broadcaster Milo Hamilton remembers waiting in line for an interview behind a man whose last question was, “And by the way, Mr. Aaron, do you hit righthanded or left?”) But the fact that he was a black man chasing the most important record of America’s pastime, held by a white icon, meant he was also in near-constant- danger. The Braves hired an Atlanta police officer, Calvin Wardlaw, to accompany their star everywhere and registered Aaron in hotels under phony names. The team forwarded the pounds of hate mail and death threats he received to the FBI.

There had been scares throughout his career, but the vitriol increased once he passed 700 homers. Someone threatened to kidnap his daughter Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Nashville. One letter promised that a man in a red jacket would shoot Aaron during a game in Atlanta; Aaron urged his teammates not to sit too close to him in the dugout. Even autograph seekers terrified those around him; the flash of a metal pen could look like that of a gun.

The evening he broke the record -- in the Braves’ home opener against the Dodgers -- was no less frightening. Aaron had received letters from people promising to kill him before he touched home plate. The Braves stationed 63 patrolmen around the ballpark that night, three times as many as usual. Wardlaw sat close to the field, hand on the .38 caliber gun he kept in his binocular case.

As Aaron circled the bases and his teammates celebrated, his family could not relax. At home plate his mother, Estella, hugged him so tightly that he thought she’d break him. It was less a tender moment than an attempt, she later said, to shield her son from snipers.

At last the game ended, and Aaron went back to his career and his life. He has refused to comment on his place in the record book as players suspected of steroid use approached and surpassed his numbers, and he doesn’t keep any memorabilia -- other than the hate mail, which he still stores in the attic of his Atlanta house -- having donated it all to the Hall of Fame.

Once a year he travels to a ranch owned by former Atlanta pitcher Pat Jarvis near Lake Oconee, Ga., 80 miles east of Turner Field. About 10 former Braves spend the weekend catching up and talking about their baseball accomplishments. “Home runs that were hit 250 feet become 400‑footers,” Aaron says.

Aaron broke his left hip after slipping on ice in February, and the last time he swung a bat was 15 years ago. Now he focuses on his roles as a Braves senior vice president and founder of the 755 Restaurant Corporation, which owns 23 Popeye’s franchises and two Krispy Kremes, all in Georgia. He sits on the boards of the Atlanta Falcons and Designer Shoe Warehouse. His Chasing the Dream Foundation awards 44 grants every year through the Boys & Girls Club.

When he watches a game today -- usually the Braves, on mute (“I don’t need to listen to an announcer,” he says) -- he marvels at the athleticism. “Did I used to do that?” he says. “Did I used to run that way?”

Even though Aaron doesn’t like to relive the home run chase, he reminds himself that mixed in with the hate mail were letters from people who had named children after him, who had been distracted from their own difficult lives, who had been inspired. The quest for 715 was challenging for Aaron and his family, but for many other people in attendance that night, it was a moment that continues to resonate.

THE FAN

Where is T.W. Lord now? Pretty much where he was in 1974, even if his hair’s a little whiter and there’s a little less of it. His seats at Atlanta Stadium -- he’s been a season-ticket holder since ’69 -- used to be behind home plate on the club level; now, at Turner Field, they’re on the same level but behind third base. But Lord, who was there with his wife, Hazel, on Aaron’s record-setting night, is proud that he has stayed close to home. “Friends come by to see me,” says Lord, 86, “people that have moved away, and I’m one of the few places they can come back and see the same name on the door.”

The owner of an insurance agency, Lord estimates that he has taken more than 400 children to games in 45 years, many of them kids of single parents and servicemen; often it’s the first baseball game they’ve attended. He makes sure to tell them Aaron’s story and drive home the lessons the slugger taught: work methodically over a long period, handle yourself well, let your efforts speak for you.
“I like for kids to understand that doing things the right way is important,” Lord says. “That’s why I want them to know about Hank.”

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THE PLAY-BY-PLAY MAN

One of the greatest compliments Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully has received was from a columnist who wrote that he “made his greatest contribution by saying nothing.”

Scully, who was calling the game for the Dodgers, has always tried to let crowd noise do the talking for him. So despite knowing that Aaron had a good chance to break the record, Scully didn’t prepare a call to use on number 715. He wanted what he said to come from the heart, and he wanted to be brief. After a quick “it is gone,” he took the headset off -- “the emotion was so great,” he says -- and walked to the back of the booth, where he stood, collecting himself, for almost a minute. When he returned to his chair he delivered his famous line, “What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an alltime baseball idol.”

Scully, a native New Yorker, hadn’t encountered much racism until he lived in an integrated barracks during his time in the Navy in the late 1940s, but he understood how much Aaron’s achievement meant.

“It was a major accomplishment,” he says. “It wasn’t just a baseball game.”

Scully, 86, is still broadcasting for the Dodgers, although he has cut back to just games in California and Arizona. He spends time with his 16 grandchildren and swims or plays nine holes of golf every once in a while. The memories of Aaron’s accomplishment don’t come back every day, but he has plenty of opportunities to remember.

“Every single time I see the number 44,” he says, “I think of Henry.”

THE CONFIDANT

They’ve fallen out of touch over the past decade or so, but there was a time when Pete Titus was Aaron’s closest friend. “We were friends for a long time,” says Aaron. When the slugger thinks about the people who had the most influence on his life, he says, “I have to put [Pete] right up there.”

Titus met Aaron during the slugger’s rookie season, in 1954. Aaron, then 20, had broken his ankle sliding into third base in a September game in Cincinnati. Titus, a 38-year-old postal worker who was introduced to Aaron through a cousin, felt bad for the young man. “He didn’t know anyone in this part of the country,” says Titus, 98. “He wasn’t nothing but a kid!”

So Titus visited him in the hospital, sneaking in food and recommending a barber for a shave and haircut. The two men remained close throughout Aaron’s career -- -Titus would drive Aaron around when the Braves were in town, and Aaron would invite Titus to stay at his house in Milwaukee for weeks at a time to fish -- so it was no surprise when Titus found himself in the owner’s box, one row behind Pearl Bailey, on April 8, 1974. He had forgotten to bring an umbrella or raincoat, so he shielded himself from the drizzle with a program, but all was forgotten when Aaron turned on Downing’s pitch.

The rest of the night was a blur, punctuated by champagne (“I got out of the way,” Titus says) and fried chicken (“Some fellow from California had ordered a ton”).
Since then Titus has retired and gone on disability for a back injury he suffered catching a sack of mail. He watches sports on TV and spends time with his wife, Jackie, his three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Age has taken its toll -- Titus doesn’t hear as well as he used to, his back aches, and he likes to say he’s been sick since 1998. “They didn’t think I’d live,” he says of his many ailments, “but I fooled them!”

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