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Against the improbable background of New York Met wives chanting, "Let's go, Hank," Henry Aaron swung his mighty Ed Kranepool bat at a very fat batting-practice pitch and sent it soaring into the left-field bleachers of Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium. Thus did Bad Henry complete a short day's work for $50,000 last week. He turned away with a pleased smile and walked off a baseball field wearing, for perhaps the last time, the Braves' uniform that he has fitted so nobly these past 21 years.
When next you see Henry Aaron swing a bat, it will be for the strange Milwaukee Brewers, in the strange American League, but in not-so-strange Milwaukee County Stadium. It was there, in 1954, that a lean 20-year-old kid broke into the major leagues with a team called the Milwaukee Braves, originally from Boston and destined for Atlanta. In the course of things Henry Aaron was to hit 733 home runs and announce his retirement as an active player, effective at the end of the 1974 season.
"I had no intention of playing again," he said in Tokyo, fondling a bat in the confining clubhouse built for smaller Oriental ballplayers. "I'm sincere about that. I intended to move into the front office of the Braves. I was wrong. Life changes."
One of life's little changes had brought him to Japan for a home-run hitting contest of international proportions. Sadaharu Oh, the Babe Ruth of Japan, would cross bats with Aaron, the Babe Ruth of America.
This momentous challenge had been arranged, not through the state departments of the United States and Japan, not through the offices of Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Baseball Commissioner Nobumoto Ohama, but through a much stronger force, CBS Television, Frank Chirkinian, executive producer. Chirkinian offered $50,000 to Aaron, 6 million yen ($20,000) to Oh and a silver bowl to the winner.
Conveniently, the Mets were in Japan for an 18-game goodwill tour—goodwill deriving from their winning just one of the first six games. The home-run contest would be taped as a preliminary to Saturday's game between the Mets and a Japanese all-star team, for showing later that day on CBS.
The principals had their pregame meeting in a special room in Korakuen Stadium. You could tell it was a special room, because on the door were the words SPECIAL ROOM. Inside, Frank Chirkinian was briefing Hank Aaron.
"We'll open with you wishing him good luck," Chirkinian said to Henry. Then, to anybody, "How do you say good luck?"
"Gom-bah-tay," somebody said.
"Hai, gambatte," said Sadaharu Oh, smiling broadly.