It was getting awfully lonely in the club," Stan Musial said last week in Cincinnati, "and when you are the only living member of it, you wait around for somebody to join you so at least there will be somebody to talk to."
In the second game of Sunday's doubleheader between the Reds and the Atlanta Braves in Crosley Field, Henry Aaron beat out an infield single and joined Musial and seven others in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits (see cover). Musial vaulted over the small fence alongside the Braves' dugout and trotted out to first to congratulate Aaron, as the biggest Cincinnati crowd in 23 years gave the game's most under-publicized star a heartfelt standing ovation. Aaron held up the ball that he had hit off rookie Pitcher Wayne Simpson and waved it at the big crowd.
"Congratulations, Henry," said Musial. "Thank you so much for coming over to see me do it," said Aaron. Aaron's single drove in a run for the Braves in their big showdown series with the Reds. Not long after, on his way to downtown Cincinnati in a police car, Musial said, "Sure I remember my 3,001st hit. It was a home run." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a radio broadcast told the story of No. 3,001 for Aaron. It was a home run over the center-field fence. "Go get 'em, Henry," said Musial.
From the beginning of the week Aaron had been trying to join Cap Anson (1897), Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie (both 1914), Ty Cobb (1921), Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins (both 1925), Paul Waner (1942) and Musial (1958). Lou Gehrig never reached 3,000 and Babe Ruth retired 127 hits short of it. George Sisler, with a lifetime batting average of .340, did not get 3,000 hits, nor did Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Harry Heilmann, Wee Willie Keeler, Kiki Cuyler, Rogers Hornsby, Mel Ott, Ducky Medwick, Sam Rice, Al Simmons or Heinie Manush. Mickey Mantle never really got close, and Willie Mays is still 43 hits away. Their ages say that Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks will not get to 3,000, and Pete Rose is not quite halfway. Carl Yastrzemski would need seven consecutive seasons better than the best one of his life to approach what Aaron accomplished last Sunday
Getting 3,000 hits is baseball's finest unsung record, but Aaron approached his goal without fanfare or trumpets from Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn or National League President Charles Feeney. The fans, fortunately, responded to him. Last Saturday evening, after doubling twice to move within one hit of 3,000, Aaron sat in front of his locker in the Braves' clubhouse in Cincinnati and said wistfully, "People have been calling me on the phone and wishing me the best of luck. I appreciate it very much. It's very nice to know that people know you are around."
The Braves are this year's most delicious baseball mystery because two freak accidents took away 18-game winner Ron Reed and top reliever Cecil Upshaw from a pitching staff that was considered questionable even when totally sound. Reed broke a collarbone in the spring, and Upshaw, who won six games and saved 25 in 1969, came close to losing a finger on his pitching hand when he was showing some teammates the elements of a basketball dunk shot. He caught his ring on an overhang while suspended in the air. At one point early this season Atlanta lost nine of 11 games, and it looked like the Cincinnati Reds would bury them deep in the Western Division. The Braves, however, revived and rolled off 11 straight wins, and people asked how.
The question should not have been how but who, and that who was Henry Aaron. Fear of Hank Aaron has been present in baseball for most of the past 16 seasons. Now, in his 17th season, that fear is larger than it has ever been before. On opening night in Atlanta 37,181 fans watched him come to bat in the first inning and pump a home run 503 feet into the upper deck in left field. It was the longest homer ever hit by a Brave in Atlanta. Last week he hit two homers to win two games in five days. In a game in which the Braves were shut out for the first time this season and held to only five hits, "Bad" Henry collected two doubles.
As silly as it might seem, Henry Aaron might just be a better hitter now than he has ever been. By the end of last week he had 16 homers and said, "I've never had a start like this. I've hit for a better average early in a season but I've never got as many homers. Despite the shifts they throw at me, I've hit. If I hit the ball hard, it will go through any shift, and I have been hitting the ball hard."
Last week in Chicago, Aaron got four hits (Nos. 2,992-2,995) in one game and he hit the ball truly hard three times. The first time, he singled through the middle to drive in the first run of the game. The second time, he lined a ball back at Cub Pitcher Joe Decker. The ball hit the rookie on the right forearm, spun him around and landed behind the mound. When Aaron reached first safely he looked at Decker, waited for time to be called and then walked to the mound. "I thought I had broken his wrist," Aaron said. "I want my hits but I don't want to hurt anyone. I was kind of afraid for the kid. It could have all been gone for him right there. But he was O.K. I told him I was sorry."
Aaron's line drive took Decker out of the game, and in the 10th inning he hit a ball hard for the third time. He worked the count his way until it was three balls and no strikes and then waited for a fastball and got it. Aaron's bat came around, his wrists snapped, and Miller Barber cannot hit a three-iron any better than Aaron hit that pitch. The ball flew deep into center field as the Braves won.