There is a warm,pleasing undercurrent making its way through the world of baseball. It flowsfrom the Western Division of the National League, where a stimulating pennantrace involving not two clubs, nor three, but five—count 'em!—is adding meaningto every move that the players make before the nervous eyes of their hopefulfans. The source of this undercurrent is Henry Aaron (see cover) of the AtlantaBraves, who suddenly this August is attracting the attention his exploits havemerited for years. The other day in Montreal's Jarry Park a startled Aaronfound himself the object of a standing ovation when his name was announced—inFrench. Each time Aaron came to bat before a tumultuous crowd of 43,000 inAtlanta Stadium last Friday night the applause increased. When on the next dayhe hit the 539th major league home run of his life the din was enormous. And onSunday as New York pitchers carefully walked him twice in a tight ball game,there it was, louder still: noise, enthusiasm, recognition. Sportswriters andannouncers are approaching Aaron as never before, and people are standingoutside clubhouse entrances to stretch for the autograph or touch the sleeve ofa man who is doing no more and no less than he has for most of his 16 years inthe major leagues.
It seems that avast subconscious wrong is being righted and that in the remaining weeks ofthis season and at least into the next one Henry Aaron, an all-but-anonymousstar, is going to be one of the most closely watched players in baseball.
One reason forthe attention is that Aaron is chasing two tremendous baseball recordssimultaneously: 3,000 hits and a possibility of passing Babe whatsisname as thealltime home run hitter. Since he is now 35, it is doubtful that Aaron willstay around long enough to hit the 176 homers he needs to pass Ruth, butattaining his 3,000th base hit is almost a certainty, and only eight men haveever done that (page 12).
This year Aaronhas been passing baseball's records as if they were painted on a post. He hasnow gone to the plate more than 9,000 times, hit for more than 5,000 totalbases and collected over 500 doubles. Since April his 29 home runs have enabledhim to out-distance the lifetime totals of Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, TedWilliams, Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle. Only Willie Mays, with 596, standsbetween Aaron's 539 and the 714 of Ruth.
Despite hisability, longevity, consistency and willingness to play even when injured, thefame that was accorded Mantle, Mays and Musial has never been granted to Aaron.Perhaps this happened because he did not play in New York, and thereby receivethe national press attention given to Mickey and Willie, or that he did notcome into the big city and tear apart the fence in Ebbets Field the way Standid in those days when he seemed to exist just to kill the Dodgers. Being inMilwaukee did not help Aaron's publicity value at all, and he was forced toshare what limelight there was with some other celebrities on those Braveteams, including Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, Lou Burdette and, for a while,Red Schoendienst.
This year Mantlehas said he believes Aaron to be the most underrated great hitter of all time.And Aaron himself concludes it is youngsters who have appreciated him most overthe years, because "adults tend to just read the headlines sometimes. Kidsread everything, all the way down through the box scores and thestatistics."
But the mood ischanging. In recent weeks the public—young and old—is beginning to recognizeHenry Aaron. "I feel it now and hear it," says Atlanta Third BasemanClete Boyer, who was with the Yankees and Mantle for eight seasons.
"It'sstarting to get like it was for Mickey. And it's only right. Henry knows morebaseball than any man I have ever met. Maybe the fact that he was colored hurthim in getting publicity, but maybe the fact that he is colored has helped himto understand people more than any other player I have known. He's not apop-off. If he wanted to manage I know that he could do it. If he was a managerhe would be a lot like Alston, and Alston is the very best."
Bill Lucas,Aaron's brother-in-law who works in the minor league department of the Braves'organization, has noticed the new affection, too. "I have been amazed,"he says. "The applause is louder when his name is announced and when hesteps into the batter's box than it has ever been."
One reason forthe applause, of course, is that Aaron is the key figure in Atlanta's hopes forvictory in the National League's frenzied Western Division race. A cool,established figure such as Aaron takes on special importance in a situationwhere no team is able to dominate a league. The Braves have spent more days infirst place than anyone else, but their tenure hardly caused trembling ordespair amid the opposition. At the end of last week the competition was sokeen that a small yarmulke would fit neatly over the top five clubs, andbetween first place and fifth was only a smidgeon of games. Cincinnati, LosAngeles and San Francisco have all been in first place at one time or anotherrecently, and Houston moved within two games early this month in spite ofstarting the season by losing 20 of 24.
Last week theCincinnati Reds took over because their team batting average is close to.290—one has to wonder how high the Reds might hit if they ever got a chance tobat against their own pitching staff. The Los Angeles Dodgers, dealt two cruelblows in recent weeks when First Baseman Wes Parker, enjoying his mostproductive season, underwent an appendectomy and Don Drysdale again encounteredarm problems, have stayed close by holding together old parts and new withsealing wax and string And, as always, the San Francisco Giants are a menacingenigma. Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds have collected over 50 home runs betweenthem, but Willie Mays and Jim Ray Hart have totaled only a dozen, and there areindications that their premier pitcher, Juan Marichal, might be slipping.
So Aaron and theBraves have as justified pennant hopes as anyone. The Braves themselves presenta rather remarkable study in contrasts. Phil Niekro, for example, has pitched17 complete games, but the rest of the staff has managed only 11. ReliefPitcher Cecil Upshaw has rolled up 21 saves, but his earned run average is abulging 3.78. (By contrast, Minnesota's Ron Perranoski in the American Leaguehas 21 saves and an ERA of 1.82.) Atlanta is a team that thrives on the longball, but at the end of last week the Braves had hit 105 home runs, while theirpitchers were giving up 116, hardly a ratio to thrive on.
The controversialtrade that brought Orlando Cepeda to the Braves from St. Louis in exchange forJoe Torre has helped. Cepeda has collected 13 game-winning hits for Atlanta (hetotaled 12 all last year with the Cardinals). Early in the season Cepeda did anexcellent job for the Braves, and his humor helped enliven what was a ratherquiet clubhouse. His home run production, however, has been sporadic.
But in the endAtlanta hopes rest with No. 44, that purposeful, deliberate craftsman, HenryAaron. He is the same Aaron that players have held in awe for years. His quickwrists still snap the bat around with tremendous speed, and he hits what areknown in baseball's dugouts as "frozen ropes." He is the mostconsistent player in a game that demands consistency of its genuine heroes. Hisrecord in this respect is remarkable. Only once did he fail to hit .280. Thatwas in 1966, the year the Braves made their move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Hisaverage fell that year to .279, but with 44 home runs and 127 runs batted innobody could complain that his hitting was inadequate.
Because of hisconsistency and high level of performance in so many categories, an averageseason for him produces eye-opening statistics. And when 16 such years are runtogether, it is no wonder that he is ranked among the greatest.
Early next seasonAaron will become the ninth man in history to reach 3,000 hits. "I startedto think about reaching 3,000 when I got to 1,000," Aaron says. "It'salways been my No. 1 goal. I have always felt that if you get your hits theother things—the home runs and runs batted in—will come along.
"People keepwondering if I will be around long enough to break Babe Ruth's home run record.I really don't know I do know that I will not hang on just for the sake ofhanging on—picking up 12 one year and maybe 20 the next and jumping from clubto club. I have too much respect for the game of baseball to do that just tochase someone's record.
"When I cameinto baseball I had a taste for it in my mouth and that has never changed. Istill love to play, though it gets harder with the length of the schedule, thetraveling and the night games. Often the fans don't realize what a player mustgo through and how tired he can get. But the fan is the one who pays his money,and he expects to receive the best for it. He goes to games to see people likeSandy Koufax pitch and Maury Wills steal bases; to see Willie Mays make thebasket catch and Henry Aaron hit. When I don't hit I feel bad about it, becausethe fans might feel cheated. It bothers you if you are a professional."
Today Aaron isoften hampered by a bad back, but he plays on with valor. He hits his pitchinstead of the one the pitcher wants him to swing at, and on defense he isstill the sure-handed Aaron that he has always been. It is his attitude to thegame he plays and his eventual security, however, that sets him apart from manytop figures in sport today.
"Baseball isthe only thing I have ever known," Aaron says. "I'm not worried aboutmoney or getting a job when I am through. When the time comes, when I feel Ishould get out, I want to do so with that same fresh taste for baseball that Ihad when I was a kid. I just want to go out with good health and fondmemories."
Bill Bartholomay,the president of the Braves, sat in his office last week as that crowd of43,000 started to enter the stadium for a twi-night double header and hereflected about Aaron.
"One of thefew right things I might have done in Milwaukee was to get to know Aaron rightaway," Bartholomay said. "My admiration for him goes beyonddescription. He's Mr. Brave. We are not going to press Henry to hang on forpublic relations reasons. It's up to Henry to make his own decision on when hewants to stop playing. If he wants to stay on the field as a coach or a managerthat's up to him, or if he wants to come into the front office that is open tohim, too. He might prefer something similar to the job Stan Musial has with theSt. Louis Cardinals. Any route he decides to take will have my full support.All Henry will have to do is tell us."
And out on thefield minutes later the Atlanta crowd was cheering its Hank. Recognition hadcome. There was even proof of it. In two categories of baseball's alltimestatistics—total hits and runs batted in—Aaron is running neck and neck withWillie Mays. Three weeks ago burglars broke into the home of Tal Smith,director of player personnel of the Houston Astros. Smith had two autographedbaseballs mounted side by side. One was signed by Willie Mays, the other byHenry Aaron. The Aaron ball was stolen. The Mays ball was not. Henry, you'refinally famous!
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
WHERE AARON RANKS AMONG THE BEST These are six ofbaseball's most respected classifications for hitters. Aaron is already amongthe top 10 in five of the categories and soon will be in the sixth.
EXTRA BASE HITS
RUNS BATTED IN
HENRY AARON (15th place)
AN AVERAGE YEAR FOR HENRY
Runs Batted In