ATLANTA — Hank Aaron was more relieved than jubilant after he broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record April 8, 1974.
The 40-year anniversary of his 715th homer provides a different perspective.
Aaron’s record-breaking homer will be celebrated tonight before the Atlanta Braves’ home opener against the New York Mets.
Hate mail and threats made it impossible for him to savor the chase of Ruth’s revered record, but on Monday he said he’ll enjoy the anniversary because such old friends as former teammate Dusty Baker will return for the pregame ceremony.
“I guess that’s just about what it’s all about, really,” Aaron said. “That’s it. The moment itself has passed. The home run was hit and whatever else. It’s just enjoying some moments with friends.”
Aaron, 80, said he has a greater appreciation for fans who still celebrate his career.
“It does. It means an awful lot to me,” Aaron said.
“I’m not one to go around bragging about certain things. I played the game because I loved the game. ... I am quite thrilled that people say that he, whatever he did, should be appreciated. That makes me feel good.”
Aaron said he is pleased with his recovery from partial left hip-replacement surgery in February. He hurt his hip when he slipped on ice and said he’s still in rehab, but can walk.
“I think I am doing just about as well as I can be,” Aaron said. “I tell everybody it’s an 80-year-old leg and it’s just going to take time before it gets well. I told my wife I promised I was not out there doing an ice dance or anything like that.”
The Braves will wear an Aaron 40th anniversary patch on their uniform sleeves this season. An outfield sign at Turner Field also will mark the anniversary.
Baker had the best seat in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium – the on-deck circle – as Aaron launched the landmark homer against the Dodgers’ Al Downing.
For Baker, it was like watching an older brother or even a father figure make history.
“People ask me, ‘What was the highlight of your career?’ That was it,” Baker said.
Aaron finished his career with 755 homers, a mark topped by Barry Bonds’ 762. Bonds’ career was tarnished by steroid allegations.
Baker said Aaron watched over him and another young outfielder, Ralph Garr.
“Hank told my mom he would take care of me like I was his son,” Baker said. “He would make us eat breakfast.
“He was our defender. If you were wrong, he would tell you. If you had a legitimate beef, he would back you. Ralph and I were with him every day. Half of what I got about taking care of players came from how Hank took care of us.”
Aaron was efficient as he put the record chase behind him at the start of the 1974 season. He tied Ruth’s record with his first swing of the season at Cincinnati, against Jack Billingham. Four days later, he set the record with his first swing of the year at home.
Before hitting the homer into the Braves’ bullpen beyond the left-field wall, Aaron told Baker what was about to happen.
“That I can remember like it was yesterday,” Baker said. “It was a cold, cold night in April. Hank told me, ‘I’m going to get this over with now.’ He knew every pitch that was coming. He had total recall of pitch sequences. He was as smart as they came.”
Aaron confirmed Baker’s tale on Monday: “I think that was right. I think I made that remark and made it to Dusty maybe three or four times. I just felt within myself that eventually before the night was over I was going to hit a home run.”
The homer was a defining moment for such young kids as Terry Pendleton, who was 13 and dreaming of playing in the major leagues.
Like other fans across the country, Pendleton rushed to his TV to watch every at-bat as NBC broke into its normal prime-time programming to follow the home-run chase.
“I still feel so fortunate to have seen it on TV,” said Pendleton, the Braves’ first-base coach and the NL MVP with Atlanta in 1991. “What a thrill and it meant so much to black kids like me hoping to play baseball. I still am amazed every time I get to talk to Hank. ... I don’t think players today understand what he went through and what it all meant to people back then.”
For Aaron, the home-run record was not his greatest achievement. He takes the most pride in holding the record with 2,297 RBIs and never having 100 strikeouts in a season.
“There was absolutely no time that anybody could say, ‘well he hit a lot of home runs but he struck out a lot of times,’” Aaron said. “That was not to be. That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, to go to the plate and strike out once or twice and not be able to make contact.”
Aaron joked he long ago learned he no longer can swing a bat or throw a ball very far. But he said he’ll cherish the memories with friends during the anniversary celebration.
“I’m going to enjoy myself as much as I can,” he said.