Number 715 is easy to remember, where you were, when and where it happened, who threw it.
It was a Monday night. We were in our quarters on Fort Stewart. Dodgers lefty Al Downing may as well have put it on a tee for Hank Aaron.
But I remember 714, the one that tied Babe Ruth’s record, even more fondly.
Back then, in 1974, the Braves were syndicated, meaning we got to see about 20 games a year. If you wanted to follow the Braves, you either had to tune into the radio or read the newspaper the next day.
I dashed home from school, knowing the Braves were going to be on early. It was opening day and Atlanta was playing Cincinnati. The Reds, back then, had the distinction of playing the season’s first game, since they were the oldest franchise.
I got home, unlocked the door, turned on the TV and watched the Hammer hammer a Jack Billingham pitch over the fence in left field at Riverfront Stadium, with Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson Sr. on the call.
I made the call to my Dad at work. Mind you, I was 7 years old. We were not to disturb the old man at work unless an ambulance was on the way because if we did call and one wasn’t, one certainly would be.
But I called and asked for Specialist 6 Donahue. That was back when the Army had such ranks. I told him Aaron had just tied the record. I think Dad said, “OK,” and that was the end of it.
I don’t think Dad — who once had his friends hold him by his feet out a sixth floor window so he could listen to Ted Williams and the Red Sox on a radio two floors below — minded getting that phone call. Since I was so young, I hadn’t been that well immersed in the lore and history of the game. I knew that Aaron had been one of three teammates to hit 40 homers in a season the season before, the first time that had happened in baseball annals.
I knew Aaron was a great player, one of the greatest ever. As the years have gone by, and the more I look at his numbers and his place in the record books, I don’t think there’s ever been one better.
His home run total overshadows everything else he’s done. Barry Bonds is going to pass him by on that list. So too might Alex Rodriguez. Ken Griffey Jr. still has an outside chance, if he can remain healthy, which has been his biggest problem over his otherwise glorious career.
He’s the all-time leader in total bases. Only three men, not including Bonds, have eclipsed the 6,000 mark in total bases. Aaron has more than 700 more total bases than Stan Musial at No. 2 on that list. He’s tied for third all-time in runs scored.
He’s still No. 3 in hits with 3,771 and had a career average of .305. That’s better than the Hit King, Pete Rose, who had a career mark of .303.
In 23 seasons, Hank Aaron drove in 2,297 runs. That’s nearly 100 runs a year for every year he played. Only two other players, Ruth and Cap Anson (and I had to look that one up), have driven in as many as 2,000 runs. Bonds too could join the 2,000-RBI club this year.
He also stole 240 bases and probably could have stolen more but didn’t need to. He also hit 98 triples and was a very good defensive outfielder. But like everything else, he wasn’t flashy or flamboyant.
He never hit more than 47 homers in a season, and from his second year in the major through 1973, he hit fewer than 30 homers in a season only twice.
As a 22-year-old rookie, he hit .328 with 26 homers and led the National League in hits and doubles.
Last year, I went to a Giants-Braves game just so I could see Bonds play in person at least once in my lifetime. What I think of him as a person is one thing. What I saw in that game last year — he hit two mammoth home runs — made me realize he truly is a great player.
Aaron only played in two World Series — he went 20-for-55, a .364 average, in two Fall Classics. His numbers are superior to any of his contemporaries, but because he played in Milwaukee and later Atlanta and not New York, like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, and because of the way he played, he doesn’t evoke the passion he should.
He handled it all, and still does, with a grace and dignity that far too few ballplayers of the current generation can even hope to match.