Work in Sports
Hailing the Hammer
Baseball begins season-long tribute to Hank Aaron
Posted: Thursday April 08, 1999 10:35 PM
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- It's taken 25 years, but it appears as though Hank Aaron is finally getting his due.
On the 25th anniversary of his hitting career home run No. 715 and breaking the all-time record, Aaron was saluted by the Atlanta Braves before Thursday's game with the Phillies.
This ceremony was the beginning of season-long celebration of The Hammer that will have the home run king being honored at ballparks across the country.
Commissioner Bud Selig, NL president Len Coleman and Al Downing, who surrendered the historic homer, were among the many on hand to honor Aaron during the 45-minute ceremony.
"You know 25 years ago ... when I hit that home run to beat the Babe's record, it was truly one of the most remarkable evenings that I have ever had in baseball," Aaron said following a two-minute standing ovation from the big crowd at 50,000-seat Turner Field.
The tribute has helped Aaron, who finished with 755 home runs, forget his somewhat bittersweet memories of the chase to beat Ruth.
As he closed in on the record, Aaron received hundreds of thousands of parcels of mail, many filled with hate because there were people who did not like the idea that a black man from Mobile, Ala., was going to pass Ruth.
Adding to the hurt was the fact that then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was not even at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the night when Aaron broke the record. Kuhn was at a dinner in Cleveland and sent one of his assistants, Monte Irvin, in his place.
"If you would have asked me 15 years ago, you would have found a much angrier person, but time has a way of healing things," he said during news conference, seated between his wife, Billye, and Selig.
"I've seen him a few times since then," he said of Kuhn, "but have not talked to him about that."
Selig, Braves chairman of the board Bill Bartholomay and Tom Johnson, chairman and CEO of Cable News Network, each spoke glowingly of Aaron. Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Frank Robinson and Phil Niekro also took part in the ceremonies.
Aaron was honored with video tributes and two songs performed by Kenny Rogers -- "The Greatest" and "Heroes."
Finally, there was the unveiling of the Hank Aaron Award, which was announced in February. It will go to the best hitter in each league at the end of the season.
"To have an award to be named in perpetuity after you for the rest of your life tells me that no matter what happens to me, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will be able to say that their father had an award named in his honor," he said.
Selig, in a news conference earlier, presented the award -- a handsome wooden plaque with an engraved silver bat atop home plate -- to Aaron, as the first winner.
"Why so long? That's a tough question to answer," Selig said. "But I think this is the appropriate time. It's something that should have happened long ago. Like a lot of things in life, I wish it had been a happier experience."
Aaron said he had wished his march to surpass Ruth had been similar to the chase shared last season by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as both surpassed the single-season mark of 61 home runs by Roger Maris. McGwire finished with 70 and Sosa with 66.
"I didn't have that opportunity and I often thought that if I only had just a little bit of that, it would have made me feel a whole lot different," Aaron said.
The celebration was the first that will take place during the regular season at major league parks to celebrate Aaron's feat.
Aaron began his major league career in 1953 and spent his entire 23 years in either Milwaukee or Atlanta, breaking the revered Ruth's record of 714 career home runs on April 8, 1974.
It came off Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth inning with the Braves trailing 4-1 and two runners on base.
The ball sailed over the left-center field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, just across the street from the current stadium, as the crowd of 53,775 roared. It was caught in the bullpen by Braves reliever Tom House at 9:07 p.m.
Aaron played two more years in Milwaukee before retiring.
He has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,364) and runs (2,174), third in games (3,298) and hits (3,771), ninth in doubles (624). During a 23-year career, he batted .305.
In February, President Clinton led a celebration in Atlanta of Aaron's 65th birthday and baseball named the hitting award for Aaron. In addition, the charity event raised $1 million for The Chasing The Dream Foundation, which was started five years ago by the Aarons for underprivileged youngsters.
The check was presented to Aaron by CNN's Johnson during the ceremony, which concluded with Aaron and his wife taking a spin around the field in a golf cart while fireworks went off in the distance to the delight of the cheering fans.
In 1999, the hitting award will go to the hitter with the most hits, home runs and RBIs, Selig said. In future years, it will be selected by a panel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.