The immortal Henry Aaron, to coin a phrase, was sitting quietly in the visitors' dugout at the Astrodome in Houston, preparing himself for another evening of being chased by Babe Ruth's ghost. He looked out at the pitcher's mound, where an overweight man in his late 30s was throwing batting practice to the Astros. "Turk Farrell," said Aaron. "Haven't seen him in a few years. I didn't know he worked batting practice for them. Had real good stuff." Aaron put his hands behind his head, leaned his shoulders against the wall and spoke what was really on his mind. "Babe. Babe. Babe. Babe. Babe Ruth. I never made a study of the man, but I know an awful lot about him. It seems that everybody I talk to tells me a little bit more."
Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of 39, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport, the 714 home runs hit by George Herman Ruth? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic? As the season began, Aaron needed 41 homers to tie Ruth, 42 to top him. And what a start he has made. Last week in a Sunday doubleheader in Atlanta he pinch-hit a home run, only his third in 20 years, and he added another in the second game. Last Wednesday he banged out one in Houston. He not only led the majors with 11 but was only 31 short of that momentous number 715. He was also several days ahead of Roger Maris' pace toward the Ruth-surpassing number 61 in 1961.
"I was reading the morning paper over a cup of coffee the day after Aaron got two," Maris says, "and when I realized that he had 10, I thought to myself, that's a lot for this early in the season for a guy 39 years old. Whenever people ask me about Henry's chances of breaking the record I tell them that because of his great swing and attitude, he should do it. I don't see how he can miss. But the pressures are going to grow. I hope the public will realize that he is just a man trying to do a job."
But Aaron is doing far more than a job. Rarely a day passes that this grand warrior does not make news. His statistical accomplishments are so vast and continuous that putting them into perspective is as difficult as standing at the depot and trying to remember freight car numbers as they pass. On Wednesday of last week, for instance, Aaron went to bat for the 11,000th time; only Ty Cobb remains ahead of him in that category (11,429). On Saturday night Aaron scored the 2,000th run of his career, something achieved previously by only three others. Within the next two weeks he probably will surpass Ruth in extra-base hits and trail only Stan Musial in that category (Musial had 1,377, Ruth 1,356). And he also will become the premier right-handed hitter of all time when he shortly tops 3,431 hits. As the week ended Aaron was only 13 hits behind Honus Wagner, who stands at that summit.
As impressive as all those accomplishments are and will be, the big number is 715. The very enormity of it is closing in fast on Aaron, both on and off the field. In two games last week against the Los Angeles Dodgers he was walked five of the eight times he went to the plate. In his first 35 games this year Aaron was walked 27 times because, frankly, the pitchers are afraid of him. Enemy infields overshift, trying to force him to hit to right field. But Aaron ignores them and takes the overhead route—to use the baseball vernacular, "goes for the pump." His average has slipped to .236, which is 75 points below his lifetime record through 1972, but the home runs are coming—of his first 25 hits, 11 were homers.
Some say there is evidence of the increasing pressure in the number of times Aaron steps out of the batter's box, how tightly he seems to be holding his bat, the way he questions umpires about strikes. But when Babe Ruth is chasing you, people see a lot of things they never took time to notice before. And, yes, it is a matter of Ruth chasing Aaron, the old legends dogging his steps, wraiths in pinstripes hounding him at every turn.
Always one to read his fan mail and answer it, Aaron has found that while the overwhelming majority of letter writers are on his side, an inordinate number do not want him to get No. 715. For a few of those who wish him ill, the reason is that Ruth is a hallowed figure in their pantheon. For most, his blackness is sufficient to denigrate his quest. Letters sent to Aaron in the past were filled with charm and gratitude: "My dog loves you. When my dad watches one of your games, she sits up and wags her tail hard." And: "One time my brother and a friend of ours were playing ball and I hit it and was going to third base and slid and the base went up in the air. My brother came up and tagged the base. Was I safe?" And: "Could you send a Braves scout down [to Augusta]? There is a boy in my class who can hit home runs every time he gets to bat." He seemed to have no undue difficulties in Atlanta.
But now many of his letters start with the salutation, "Dear Nigger," and go downhill from there. "It bothers me," says Aaron. "I have seen a President shot and his brother shot. The man who murdered Dr. Martin Luther King is in jail, but that isn't doing Dr. King much good, is it? I have four children and I have to be concerned about their welfare."
Last week more than 2,000 letters to Aaron were received at Atlanta Stadium. More arrive at his home. The volume is so great that the club has assigned Aaron a secretary, Carla Koplin, to handle the mail. She sits with stacks of it, opening it, sorting it, wishing that Aaron would read less of it. But Aaron reads and reads.
At 190 pounds Aaron is only 10 pounds heavier than when he first came out of Jacksonville 20 years ago and got a job with the Braves, then in Milwaukee, because Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in a spring-training slide. Aaron's wrists still have the quickness that enables him to flick his bat out and snap the outside pitch to left field, but the Aaron arm is not what it used to be. "It hurts at times," he says. Three weeks ago he was moved from right field to left so that runners could not spin so easily from first to third on singles to right or score from second without a challenge. "I went to Aaron," says Manager Eddie Mathews, "and said, 'Henry, what do you think about moving over to left?' He just said, 'Yes.' "
As for the legs, well, how many power hitters could run like Aaron to start with? At the age of 34 he stole 28 bases in 33 attempts, but such seasons are now just memories and Mathews has put pinch runners in for him in the late innings of some games.
But it is the bat, of course, that counts now. As Pitcher Curt Simmons said oh so many years ago, "Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster." That remark is still valid. Unlike most aging hitters, Aaron can still handle the fastball—on those rare occasions when he sees one. "Once in a while, when a pitcher thinks I'm tired, he might throw one," Aaron says. These days they try to fool him with breaking pitches, but they still get burned unless the pitches are superior. Claude Osteen of the Dodgers, Aaron's No. 1 home run victim among active pitchers (he has given up 13), says, "Slapping a rattlesnake across the face with the back of your hand is safer than trying to fool Henry Aaron."
Aaron knows the strike zone down to the last millimeter, and he has great patience. He will wait for his pitch and then crush it. For years he sprayed the ball hard to all fields, but in recent seasons he has become a pull hitter. Most National League teams now put three men on the third-base side of the infield against him to stop balls from going through. They also bunch their outfields by moving the centerfielder over into left and the rightfielder toward center. The right side of the infield is open, of course, but few hitters can steer a pitched ball well enough to roll it through. Aaron is not asked to try.
"I know what it's like to be shifted against," says Mathews, who holds the record for most homers by a third baseman (483). "It was done to me. You just don't change a man of 39 who has meant to this game what Henry means. Henry went to camp this spring and worked his tail off. There were times when I had to stop him because I thought he might be overextending himself. The strain on him is going to be enormous as the season progresses, but we are going to do everything possible to help him. It's because of who he is chasing that the pressure will build. Heck, when he and I combined for most home runs hit by teammates, there was no pressure at all. We didn't even know we were going after the record until a month after we had broken it."
Ruth's revered 714 seems to possess a majesty so great that it might have come to us engraved on a stone tablet, but whose record did Ruth break? Nobody really knows. Going into the 1921 season, Gavvy Cravath appeared to hold it with 117 homers to Ruth's 103. But when Ruth hit No. 117 The New York Times did not mention it. A week later The Sporting News smugly summed things up as follows: "Contrary to report, Babe Ruth did not equal Cravath's lifetime major league home run record when the slugging Babe smote a four-base lick off Dave Keefe of the Athletics on May 29. Cravath, who retired after 11 years in the majors with a record of hitting more home runs than any major-leaguer, has a total of 119 home runs to his credit, not 117 as some records show. He made two as an American Leaguer that had been overlooked."
Further research disclosed that 136 homers were hit by one Roger Connor from 1880 to 1897, and two other players, Sam Thompson and Harry Stovey, also hit more than Cravath. But what Ruth did was unique, and he changed the game. Until Ruth began hitting homers the standard attack relied on the steal, the hit-and-run, singles and doubles. In 1915, Ruth's first full season, the Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant with a team total of 13 home runs. Pitcher Ruth (18-8) led his club with four and Braggo Roth topped the American League with seven. Three seasons later the whole American League amassed only 100 homers. Ruth, functioning as pitcher, outfielder and first baseman, tied for the major league lead with 11 homers. Again the Red Sox won the pennant; the rest of the team hit exactly five home runs.
In 1920 Ruth was sold to the Yankees for $125,000, the ball was given an injection of rabbit fluid, the spitball and other moist pitches were ruled illegal, and 369 homers were hit in the American League. Attendance in the league, 1,708,000 in 1918, soared to 5,084,000 in 1920. The Yankees, sharing the Polo Grounds with John McGraw's Giants, saw their own attendance skyrocket from 282,000 to 1,289,000 and baseball's future was forever changed.
As Aaron moves on toward Ruth's record it will be argued that it is easier to hit homers today than it was then; that the fences Ruth was shooting at were more distant; that the pitchers today are not as good as they were then. But these are merely non-truths being handed down as gospel in the interest of keeping the glitter on glorious days. The fact is that the right-field fence at the Polo Grounds was only 257' from home plate and the one at Yankee Stadium 296'. Balls that bounced over or through fences counted as homers. In the years Ruth played in the majors most of his homers came on the road (363-351), and no records were kept of balls bouncing into the seats. "When Babe hit them," says Leo Durocher, a man who played with some of his Yankee teams and recalls those times with ardor, "you had to have a good seat to get a ball. He hit them so far they didn't need any bounce on them to be homers. Babe Ruth was a fantastic hitter and so is Henry Aaron. He is the greatest right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby, and nobody will ever be better than Hornsby in my book."
Joe Monahan, chief scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, says, "I saw Ruth take batting practice a few times. Once you saw that you wondered why he didn't hit more home runs than he did. One ball would be just going over the fence, a second would be halfway there and the third would just be leaving his bat."
"Ruth hit balls so high," says Durocher, "that the infielders would lose sight of them, or gather under them, and when they dropped Ruth would be standing on third with a triple hit no farther than 15 feet beyond second base."
When Aaron hit 47 homers in 1971 and also batted .327, Atlanta rewarded him with a $200,000 salary. The baseball world looked upon it with disbelief. It was assumed there must be conditions in it based on his eventual topping of Ruth's record or, at the very least, attendance clauses.
Well, attendance at Braves home games would not earn Aaron much. Through last Thursday Atlanta was averaging 15,542 fans on the road against 7,581 at home. Atlanta crowds are off sharply from last season, one in which the Braves drew a puny 753,000. It seems as if they love Aaron on the road and are notably cool toward him at home. What will happen when he goes past 700 remains to be seen.
It was in April 1954 that Aaron hit No. 1. (Dwight Eisenhower was President, and the McCarthy hearings gripped the nation, just to put things in historical perspective.) It came off Vic Raschi of the Cardinals in Aaron's seventh big-league game. No. 109, hit in the 11th inning of a 2-2 game with St. Louis, clinched Milwaukee's first pennant in 1957. The following evening Aaron delivered No. 110 and it accomplished two things: it was the first of his 14 career grand slams and it won him the first of four National League home run championships.
Homer No. 215 has received little attention, although Aaron maintains it is the only one he ever hit in genuine anger. The Braves were playing the Dodgers at County Stadium in Milwaukee with Stan Williams pitching for Los Angeles. Aaron had heard that Williams kept a picture of him taped above his locker and threw darts at it on the days he would be pitching to him. His first time up, Williams hit Aaron with a 3-1 pitch. Henry felt it was deliberate and shouted a few words at Williams. Dodger First Baseman Gil Hodges tried to quiet Aaron, but as he took a short lead away from first Williams threw over—and hit Aaron again. "I got hit two times in one inning," Aaron says, smiling about it now. "I was burning. When I came up again I was still burning. I was furious. I homered off him."
Some historians believe that Aaron was deprived of one homer he deserved. He had it taken away in 1965 in one of the oddest of baseball rulings. The Braves were playing the Cardinals, with Curt Simmons pitching for St. Louis. Simmons was Aaron's nemesis, the one man he could never seem to hit. Simmons threw changeups when Henry thought he would be throwing fastballs and fast-balls when Henry thought he would be throwing changes. He could slip that sunrise past the rooster. That night Aaron guessed changeup and turned out to be correct. He hit the ball and it soared up onto the right-field roof in Busch Stadium. But Umpire Chris Pelekoudas called Aaron out for stepping on home plate as he swung. Nobody is rooting more for Aaron not to stop at 713 or 714 than Chris Pelekoudas.
Aaron won't stop. No. 715 will be reached but one thing is certain—it won't come easy. His appetite for the Spanish, Polynesian and Chinese food he likes so much is fading. He turns the phone off in the suite the Braves supply him on the road in order to get the sleep he finds increasingly elusive. There are ghosts in pinstripes, and too many walks, and months of "Dear Nigger" before the great day comes.
The Houston scoreboard offers words of cheer to a troubled Aaron, but in Atlanta there is hate amid the mail on his secretary's desk.