He seemed always to be the loneliest of men, and never more so than on the occasion of his greatest triumph. Henry Aaron had been such an unpretentious and workmanlike star that he caught the baseball world by surprise when it became obvious in the early 1970s that he would soon surpass Babe Ruth as the game's most prolific home run hitter. By the end of the '73 season, in fact, he was only one homer shy of the Babe's career record of 714. How could this have happened? Where did all those dingers come from? Aaron had never hit 50 or more in a season, as Ruth had four times. Besides, Ruth was the Sultan of Swat, the most colorful and dramatic player in baseball history. Consistency was Aaron's game, not theatricality, and in his own quiet way he had been pecking away with 30 or 40 homers a season for 20 years. Now—at last, and yet suddenly—Hank Aaron stood poised on the brink of immortality.
The brink seemed to Aaron more like a frightening precipice. He had never received a particle of the adulation lavished on such contemporaries as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente. The others had a glamour sorely missing in Aaron's placid makeup. Hank did his job every day, and that's exactly the way he wanted it. Now he found himself standing in the white-hot glare of the media spotlight. He was about to beat the Babe, for god's sake! But Aaron embraced one aspect of his record chase: As a black man from Mobile, Ala., and as one of the pioneers who helped break down the game's color barrier in the '50s, he felt a surge of racial pride at the history-making element of his impending accomplishment. In his years in Atlanta he had sharpened an already keen social conscience. Beating the Babe, he knew, would be a statement.
But Aaron didn't much care for the rest of this home run circus—the invasion of his cherished privacy, the daily interruptions of his work schedule, the inevitable harassment of his family and friends. And there was something else, something he didn't fully acknowledge in public until years later. As he approached the record, Aaron became the target of a virulent hate-mail campaign. By what right, the racists wanted to know, did he, a black man, dare to supplant the beloved Babe? Some letters suggested that he would not live long enough to succeed. Police were alerted, bodyguards were hired. Aaron even advised his Atlanta teammates to keep clear of him in the dugout lest some demented potential assassin take aim from the stands. What was to have been his finest hour had become a monstrous ordeal.
But Aaron beat the Babe anyway. In his first swing of the bat in the 1974 season, he homered off the Reds' Jack Billingham in Cincinnati to tie the record. And then, four days later, on a rainy Monday night in Atlanta, he lifted a fastball thrown by the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing over the leftfield fence for number 715. Aaron circled the bases in the unwanted company of two young fans who had rushed onto the field to applaud him. Aaron eyed them warily. At home plate Hank was joined by his father, Herbert, and his mother, Estella. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter was also there to congratulate him. An American flag had been painted on the grass in centerfield. Bands were playing, the crowd was cheering. Hammerin' Hank had done it! Only to him did it seem a hollow victory.
Aaron would complete his 23-year career where he started it, in Milwaukee. He played two more years there, with the Brewers, finishing with 755 home runs and a major-league-record 2,297 runs batted in. He had led the National League in homers and runs batted in four times, won two batting championships and, in 1957, been the league's Most Valuable Player; but he didn't receive the recognition that was his due until the very end, when it could scarcely be savored.
In his 1991 book, I Had a Hammer, Aaron unleashed much of the anger and disappointment he had harbored for nearly 20 years, quoting extensively from the thousands of "Dear Nigger" letters he received during his ordeal. It is a sad irony that his status as an American hero has been elevated by the revelation of the indignities he endured. Meanwhile Aaron, at 60, presses on. As a Brave executive since his retirement from competition, in 1976, he has campaigned tirelessly to persuade the baseball powers to hire more African-Americans in front-office positions. In his still quietly efficient way, Aaron seems to be his own best argument.