We grew up with the great Milo Hamilton’s call.

“He’s sittin’ on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be … OUTTA HERE! It’s gone. It’s 715. There’s a new home run champion of all time and it’s Henry Aaron.”

Later, I found the still greater Vin Scully’s call; or what Scully said after Aaron crossed the plate.

“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.”

It’s amazing Hamilton began with “He’s sittin’ on 714” because he didn’t say it before Aaron saw Al Downing’s first pitch. He said it when the count went 1-0, a beat before Downing threw and Aaron swung.

It’s beyond amazing Scully had the presence of mind, in the moment, to offer the cultural significance of something that would be forgotten if he’d not said it.

It was April 8, 1974, just six years and four days after Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. It was also Atlanta, the city whose minor league baseball team until the Braves moved in from Milwaukee was called the “Crackers.”

But it’s the two kids that hooked me forever, who made it the sports highlight of my life and maybe yours.

They’re the two young white men, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, both just 17 at the time, who a second after Aaron shook hands mid-trot with Dodger middle infielders Davey Lopes and Bill Russell, caught up to him between second and third base.

Aaron had received death threats via thousands of racist, hate-spewing letters warning him not to break Babe Ruth’s record. They affected him for the rest of his life.

“That whole period, I lived like a guy in a fishbowl, swimming from side to side with nowhere to go, watching everybody watching me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I resented it, and I still resent it.”

But Gaston and Courtenay only wanted to pat him on the back and that’s all they did.

The vitriol, hatred and ugliness Aaron faced, just for being a Black man doing his job, is a horribly American sentiment.

Gaston’s and Courtenay’s excitement, though, was utterly American, too, and for all the right reasons, because all of us are at least born capable of being as excited and moved by the magnificence of a moment delivered by a hero, independent of the color of that hero’s skin, as those two then-young men.

I grasped it as a child:

The historical significance of Aaron’s passing The Babe.

The magical testament to the way things ought to be of the two teenagers who couldn’t help but to share Aaron’s moment with him.

Somehow, the way he shrugged past them, not slowing down nor speeding up as he continued to jog around the bases, Aaron’s goodness.

“The only man I idolize more than myself,” Muhammad Ali once said of him.

Ali was brash.

Aaron not at all.

Both pushed us forward.

There can be no noting Aaron’s passing without reminding that he was vastly underrated. Being seen as mostly a home run hitter ignored an avalanche of skills and gifts.

If he had a single peer who overlapped his career, it was Willie Mays. Mays, Ruth and Barry Bonds may be the only three with better-player cases and Bonds is disqualified for cheating.

Only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb collected more hits. Nobody drove in more. Nobody reached more bases. Only Rickey Henderson, Cobb and Bonds scored more runs. Aaron was not an All-Star his rookie season nor his last one, but he was for the 21 in between.

For 18 seasons and 2,715 games, he hit .313 and slugged .569. Throw in his last five and 583 games and he still hit .305 and slugged. 555. He won three gold gloves and stole 240 bases, too.

There’s also this.

Take away all 755 of his home runs and he still finishes with 3,016 hits, 30th all time between Rafael Palmiero and Wade Boggs. Also, his entire career, not once did he strike out 100 times in a season, only three times did he strike out 90, only four 80 and only five 70, even averaging 152 games the first 17 years of his career.

None of that made it so difficult to perform my job Friday, learning of his death during the first quarter of the high school basketball game I was covering and wiping tears from my eyes the next three, and again and again through the day as tributes poured in.

He was just so … good.

I abhor what people say when the famous and great but also well regarded, die; when they say the fallen was a great ballplayer, musician, actor, leader, artist, writer, etc. … {em}yet an even better person.

Because it’s never true.

Always, that person is one of the best five, 10, or 25 in their field, making the second half of the trope literally not true, because they would have to be one of the best 5, 10 or 25 to ever live, as well.

The same is true of Aaron, because he couldn’t have been one of the best three, four or five people to ever live, as he was on the diamond.

Maybe the top 10 or 25.

Class and dignity. Humility without forfeiting pride. A civil rights leader. Kind. Warm. Possessor of the contagious smile reserved for owners of lives well lived.

I’ve had lots of heroes.

Many have died.

But nothing’s hit me the way it hit me Friday, when I learned Henry Aaron was gone. Not once. Not ever.

He was a mountain.

He is a mountain.

Clay Horning

405 366-3526

Follow me @clayhorning


Trending Video