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A TORTURED ROAD TO 715
William Leggett
May 28, 1973
As Henry Aaron swings toward a magic number he must face both the ghost of Ruth and racist reality
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May 28, 1973

A Tortured Road To 715

As Henry Aaron swings toward a magic number he must face both the ghost of Ruth and racist reality

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When Aaron hit 47 homers in 1971 and also batted .327, Atlanta rewarded him with a $200,000 salary. The baseball world looked upon it with disbelief. It was assumed there must be conditions in it based on his eventual topping of Ruth's record or, at the very least, attendance clauses.

Well, attendance at Braves home games would not earn Aaron much. Through last Thursday Atlanta was averaging 15,542 fans on the road against 7,581 at home. Atlanta crowds are off sharply from last season, one in which the Braves drew a puny 753,000. It seems as if they love Aaron on the road and are notably cool toward him at home. What will happen when he goes past 700 remains to be seen.

It was in April 1954 that Aaron hit No. 1. ( Dwight Eisenhower was President, and the McCarthy hearings gripped the nation, just to put things in historical perspective.) It came off Vic Raschi of the Cardinals in Aaron's seventh big-league game. No. 109, hit in the 11th inning of a 2-2 game with St. Louis, clinched Milwaukee's first pennant in 1957. The following evening Aaron delivered No. 110 and it accomplished two things: it was the first of his 14 career grand slams and it won him the first of four National League home run championships.

Homer No. 215 has received little attention, although Aaron maintains it is the only one he ever hit in genuine anger. The Braves were playing the Dodgers at County Stadium in Milwaukee with Stan Williams pitching for Los Angeles. Aaron had heard that Williams kept a picture of him taped above his locker and threw darts at it on the days he would be pitching to him. His first time up, Williams hit Aaron with a 3-1 pitch. Henry felt it was deliberate and shouted a few words at Williams. Dodger First Baseman Gil Hodges tried to quiet Aaron, but as he took a short lead away from first Williams threw over—and hit Aaron again. "I got hit two times in one inning," Aaron says, smiling about it now. "I was burning. When I came up again I was still burning. I was furious. I homered off him."

Some historians believe that Aaron was deprived of one homer he deserved. He had it taken away in 1965 in one of the oddest of baseball rulings. The Braves were playing the Cardinals, with Curt Simmons pitching for St. Louis. Simmons was Aaron's nemesis, the one man he could never seem to hit. Simmons threw changeups when Henry thought he would be throwing fastballs and fast-balls when Henry thought he would be throwing changes. He could slip that sunrise past the rooster. That night Aaron guessed changeup and turned out to be correct. He hit the ball and it soared up onto the right-field roof in Busch Stadium. But Umpire Chris Pelekoudas called Aaron out for stepping on home plate as he swung. Nobody is rooting more for Aaron not to stop at 713 or 714 than Chris Pelekoudas.

Aaron won't stop. No. 715 will be reached but one thing is certain—it won't come easy. His appetite for the Spanish, Polynesian and Chinese food he likes so much is fading. He turns the phone off in the suite the Braves supply him on the road in order to get the sleep he finds increasingly elusive. There are ghosts in pinstripes, and too many walks, and months of "Dear Nigger" before the great day comes.

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