Whatever other letters Aaron could lay his hands on, the milder ones, he asked his secretary to save. And all that year, in public appearances off the field, he tried to put a smile on his careworn face. Why, there was Hank Aaron on The Flip Wilson Show! Wasn't that the Hammer cooking with Dinah Shore? Did you see Hank on Hollywood Squares'?
Because of the threats, Aaron spent his free time sitting in his Atlanta apartment, watching a neon sign outside blink on and off. On the road Paul Casanova, a catcher for the Braves, brought meals to Aaron's room. Aaron didn't stay with the team, didn't cat with the team, just as in Jim Crow days. Every off day Aaron, by then divorced from his wife, Barbara, flew to Nashville to visit their daughter Gaile at Fisk University. The FBI had uncovered a plot to kidnap Gaile; she finished the term protected by federal agents disguised as maintenance men.
Billye Williams, Hank's fiancée, had nightmares and worried herself sick anytime Hank was late and hadn't called; she worries still, she says, 19 years later. They huddled together in secret rooms, like lovers in wartime. "That was the only good thing that happened," Hank says now, "the time with Billye."
During home stands Aaron was bitter about the Braves' paltry attendance: The 1,362 fans, then a record low, who watched him hit No. 711 seemed to reflect the apathy, if not disdain, that Atlanta felt for him. The Braves' front office received threats on Aaron's life, and one time the team had to deny a rumor that he had been shot. Another time, during a game in Montreal, a firecracker exploded, and Aaron, standing in leftfield, thought it was all over. "It scared me out of my mind," he says now.
Aaron displayed "greater courage and dignity that season than any man I've ever seen," says Cecil. He also hit .301 with 40 homers and 96 RBIs in only 392 at bats, as fine a season as a 39-year-old ever had. He finished with 713 home runs, one short of Ruth.
There is 6 months until the '74 season begins. Until then, one can break a leg, his back, develop sickle cell anemia or drop dead. Babe Ruth's 714 record will never be tied or broken.
I hope lightning will strike you before next season.
In his first at bat of the '74 season, facing Jack Billingham in Cincinnati, Aaron hit No. 714, tying the Babe, and his eyes welled up as he rounded third base. That night Hank called his mother in Mobile and said, "I'm going to save the next one for you, Mom."
Estella Aaron remembers, "He told me, 'Mama, let them try to kill me. That makes me more determined than ever to set that record.' " The FBI was investigating threats that if Aaron hit No. 715, he would not cross home plate alive.
On April 8, 1974, Herbert Aaron, one of 53,775 fans in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the biggest crowd in Brave history, threw out the first ball. Next to Herb sat Alfredia and Estella. Henry's mom had put on her best diamond-print dress and had her hair coiffed for the occasion.