As for the legs, well, how many power hitters could run like Aaron to start with? At the age of 34 he stole 28 bases in 33 attempts, but such seasons are now just memories and Mathews has put pinch runners in for him in the late innings of some games.
But it is the bat, of course, that counts now. As Pitcher Curt Simmons said oh so many years ago, "Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster." That remark is still valid. Unlike most aging hitters, Aaron can still handle the fastball—on those rare occasions when he sees one. "Once in a while, when a pitcher thinks I'm tired, he might throw one," Aaron says. These days they try to fool him with breaking pitches, but they still get burned unless the pitches are superior. Claude Osteen of the Dodgers, Aaron's No. 1 home run victim among active pitchers (he has given up 13), says, "Slapping a rattlesnake across the face with the back of your hand is safer than trying to fool Henry Aaron."
Aaron knows the strike zone down to the last millimeter, and he has great patience. He will wait for his pitch and then crush it. For years he sprayed the ball hard to all fields, but in recent seasons he has become a pull hitter. Most National League teams now put three men on the third-base side of the infield against him to stop balls from going through. They also bunch their outfields by moving the centerfielder over into left and the rightfielder toward center. The right side of the infield is open, of course, but few hitters can steer a pitched ball well enough to roll it through. Aaron is not asked to try.
"I know what it's like to be shifted against," says Mathews, who holds the record for most homers by a third baseman (483). "It was done to me. You just don't change a man of 39 who has meant to this game what Henry means. Henry went to camp this spring and worked his tail off. There were times when I had to stop him because I thought he might be overextending himself. The strain on him is going to be enormous as the season progresses, but we are going to do everything possible to help him. It's because of who he is chasing that the pressure will build. Heck, when he and I combined for most home runs hit by teammates, there was no pressure at all. We didn't even know we were going after the record until a month after we had broken it."
Ruth's revered 714 seems to possess a majesty so great that it might have come to us engraved on a stone tablet, but whose record did Ruth break? Nobody really knows. Going into the 1921 season, Gavvy Cravath appeared to hold it with 117 homers to Ruth's 103. But when Ruth hit No. 117
The New York Times
did not mention it. A week later
The Sporting News
smugly summed things up as follows: "Contrary to report, Babe Ruth did not equal Cravath's lifetime major league home run record when the slugging Babe smote a four-base lick off Dave Keefe of the Athletics on May 29. Cravath, who retired after 11 years in the majors with a record of hitting more home runs than any major-leaguer, has a total of 119 home runs to his credit, not 117 as some records show. He made two as an American Leaguer that had been overlooked."
Further research disclosed that 136 homers were hit by one Roger Connor from 1880 to 1897, and two other players, Sam Thompson and Harry Stovey, also hit more than Cravath. But what Ruth did was unique, and he changed the game. Until Ruth began hitting homers the standard attack relied on the steal, the hit-and-run, singles and doubles. In 1915, Ruth's first full season, the Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant with a team total of 13 home runs. Pitcher Ruth (18-8) led his club with four and Braggo Roth topped the American League with seven. Three seasons later the whole American League amassed only 100 homers. Ruth, functioning as pitcher, outfielder and first baseman, tied for the major league lead with 11 homers. Again the Red Sox won the pennant; the rest of the team hit exactly five home runs.
In 1920 Ruth was sold to the Yankees for $125,000, the ball was given an injection of rabbit fluid, the spitball and other moist pitches were ruled illegal, and 369 homers were hit in the American League. Attendance in the league, 1,708,000 in 1918, soared to 5,084,000 in 1920. The Yankees, sharing the Polo Grounds with John McGraw's Giants, saw their own attendance skyrocket from 282,000 to 1,289,000 and baseball's future was forever changed.
As Aaron moves on toward Ruth's record it will be argued that it is easier to hit homers today than it was then; that the fences Ruth was shooting at were more distant; that the pitchers today are not as good as they were then. But these are merely non-truths being handed down as gospel in the interest of keeping the glitter on glorious days. The fact is that the right-field fence at the Polo Grounds was only 257' from home plate and the one at Yankee Stadium 296'. Balls that bounced over or through fences counted as homers. In the years Ruth played in the majors most of his homers came on the road (363-351), and no records were kept of balls bouncing into the seats. "When Babe hit them," says Leo Durocher, a man who played with some of his Yankee teams and recalls those times with ardor, "you had to have a good seat to get a ball. He hit them so far they didn't need any bounce on them to be homers. Babe Ruth was a fantastic hitter and so is Henry Aaron. He is the greatest right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby, and nobody will ever be better than Hornsby in my book."
Joe Monahan, chief scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, says, "I saw Ruth take batting practice a few times. Once you saw that you wondered why he didn't hit more home runs than he did. One ball would be just going over the fence, a second would be halfway there and the third would just be leaving his bat."
" Ruth hit balls so high," says Durocher, "that the infielders would lose sight of them, or gather under them, and when they dropped Ruth would be standing on third with a triple hit no farther than 15 feet beyond second base."