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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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The immortal Henry Aaron, to coin a phrase, was sitting quietly in the visitors' dugout at the Astrodome in Houston, preparing himself for another evening of being chased by Babe Ruth's ghost. He looked out at the pitcher's mound, where an overweight man in his late 30s was throwing batting practice to the Astros. "Turk Farrell," said Aaron. "Haven't seen him in a few years. I didn't know he worked batting practice for them. Had real good stuff." Aaron put his hands behind his head, leaned his shoulders against the wall and spoke what was really on his mind. "Babe. Babe. Babe. Babe. Babe Ruth. I never made a study of the man, but I know an awful lot about him. It seems that everybody I talk to tells me a little bit more."

Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of 39, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport, the 714 home runs hit by George Herman Ruth? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic? As the season began, Aaron needed 41 homers to tie Ruth, 42 to top him. And what a start he has made. Last week in a Sunday doubleheader in Atlanta he pinch-hit a home run, only his third in 20 years, and he added another in the second game. Last Wednesday he banged out one in Houston. He not only led the majors with 11 but was only 31 short of that momentous number 715. He was also several days ahead of Roger Maris' pace toward the Ruth-surpassing number 61 in 1961.

"I was reading the morning paper over a cup of coffee the day after Aaron got two," Maris says, "and when I realized that he had 10, I thought to myself, that's a lot for this early in the season for a guy 39 years old. Whenever people ask me about Henry's chances of breaking the record I tell them that because of his great swing and attitude, he should do it. I don't see how he can miss. But the pressures are going to grow. I hope the public will realize that he is just a man trying to do a job."

But Aaron is doing far more than a job. Rarely a day passes that this grand warrior does not make news. His statistical accomplishments are so vast and continuous that putting them into perspective is as difficult as standing at the depot and trying to remember freight car numbers as they pass. On Wednesday of last week, for instance, Aaron went to bat for the 11,000th time; only Ty Cobb remains ahead of him in that category (11,429). On Saturday night Aaron scored the 2,000th run of his career, something achieved previously by only three others. Within the next two weeks he probably will surpass Ruth in extra-base hits and trail only Stan Musial in that category (Musial had 1,377, Ruth 1,356). And he also will become the premier right-handed hitter of all time when he shortly tops 3,431 hits. As the week ended Aaron was only 13 hits behind Honus Wagner, who stands at that summit.

As impressive as all those accomplishments are and will be, the big number is 715. The very enormity of it is closing in fast on Aaron, both on and off the field. In two games last week against the Los Angeles Dodgers he was walked five of the eight times he went to the plate. In his first 35 games this year Aaron was walked 27 times because, frankly, the pitchers are afraid of him. Enemy infields overshift, trying to force him to hit to right field. But Aaron ignores them and takes the overhead route—to use the baseball vernacular, "goes for the pump." His average has slipped to .236, which is 75 points below his lifetime record through 1972, but the home runs are coming—of his first 25 hits, 11 were homers.

Some say there is evidence of the increasing pressure in the number of times Aaron steps out of the batter's box, how tightly he seems to be holding his bat, the way he questions umpires about strikes. But when Babe Ruth is chasing you, people see a lot of things they never took time to notice before. And, yes, it is a matter of Ruth chasing Aaron, the old legends dogging his steps, wraiths in pinstripes hounding him at every turn.

Always one to read his fan mail and answer it, Aaron has found that while the overwhelming majority of letter writers are on his side, an inordinate number do not want him to get No. 715. For a few of those who wish him ill, the reason is that Ruth is a hallowed figure in their pantheon. For most, his blackness is sufficient to denigrate his quest. Letters sent to Aaron in the past were filled with charm and gratitude: "My dog loves you. When my dad watches one of your games, she sits up and wags her tail hard." And: "One time my brother and a friend of ours were playing ball and I hit it and was going to third base and slid and the base went up in the air. My brother came up and tagged the base. Was I safe?" And: "Could you send a Braves scout down [to Augusta]? There is a boy in my class who can hit home runs every time he gets to bat." He seemed to have no undue difficulties in Atlanta.

But now many of his letters start with the salutation, "Dear Nigger," and go downhill from there. "It bothers me," says Aaron. "I have seen a President shot and his brother shot. The man who murdered Dr. Martin Luther King is in jail, but that isn't doing Dr. King much good, is it? I have four children and I have to be concerned about their welfare."

Last week more than 2,000 letters to Aaron were received at Atlanta Stadium. More arrive at his home. The volume is so great that the club has assigned Aaron a secretary, Carla Koplin, to handle the mail. She sits with stacks of it, opening it, sorting it, wishing that Aaron would read less of it. But Aaron reads and reads.

At 190 pounds Aaron is only 10 pounds heavier than when he first came out of Jacksonville 20 years ago and got a job with the Braves, then in Milwaukee, because Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in a spring-training slide. Aaron's wrists still have the quickness that enables him to flick his bat out and snap the outside pitch to left field, but the Aaron arm is not what it used to be. "It hurts at times," he says. Three weeks ago he was moved from right field to left so that runners could not spin so easily from first to third on singles to right or score from second without a challenge. "I went to Aaron," says Manager Eddie Mathews, "and said, 'Henry, what do you think about moving over to left?' He just said, 'Yes.' "

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