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Mudville: July 23, 2024 7:46 pm PDT

The Lost Tapes: Hank Aaron

Bring back the asterisk.

This time, use it to declare Henry Aaron baseball’s true Home Run King. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs over his PED clouded career. Aaron blasted 755, topping Babe Ruth’s record of 714.

To beat that record Aaron had to go through hell. The racism hurled his way and onto his family was disgusting but Aaron withstood it all and managed to survive and thrive, head held high just like the 755 times he circled the bases.

In truth, there never was an asterisk but after Roger Maris broke Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs, hitting ’61 in 1961, commissioner Ford Frick declared the records should be separate because Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927 in a 154-game season while Maris hit his 61 home runs in a 162-game season. In 1991, commissioner Fay Vincent got rid of the separate designations.

And here we are 60 years later, and Maris’ record is long shattered. Bonds blasted 73 home runs in 2001 to gain the single-season mark.

The Great Henry Aaron passed away on Friday at the age of 86. Aaron was the classiest of ballplayers, another in a long sad line of Hall of Famers who have died recently. I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Aaron many times through the years, most of those conversations coming up in Cooperstown, NY.

There was one other special day, though, that I spent with Aaron and up until Saturday I could not locate the recording of that meeting.

Let’s call it The Lost Tapes.

Now when doing interviews, everything is recorded digitally, a nice handy little recorder with no tape. But up until a few years ago with all the interviews I conducted, I used a larger tape recorder that utilized micro cassette tapes.

I burned through so many of those tape recorders through the years and thousands of tapes. Believe me, a lot of interviews in my 46 years on the job.

Being unorganized, it’s a gift, I would dump the used tapes in a desk drawer or into a plastic tub, thinking, “You know what, someday I’m going to organize all these tapes.’’

Yeah, right.

So in my last move, house to condo, -moving is great isn’t it – there was a downsizing of major proportions. All the tapes I found scattered around my office were thrown into a big bin. That bin traveled to my newest home and sat in the back of a closet for a couple of years.

There was one tape I wanted to find. In light of Hank Aaron’s passing I wanted to find the tape where just the two of us, just me and Hank, walked through a traveling Hall of Fame exhibit at the Museum of Natural History as we talked about his career and baseball. Where baseball was and where it is going.

Who wouldn’t want to have that tape?

So I started looking and looking and looking. Luckily most of the tapes had something scribbled on them. Again these are micro cassettes so that’s a small scribble.

After hours of searching and almost giving up I pulled out another tape. It read Tamba Hali on one side. Hali was the former first round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs from New Jersey. Thinking this was from my NFL years I thought there was no way Hank Aaron would be sharing a tape with Tamba Hali. I turned the tape over and there it was – H. Aaron.

The tape was from March of 2002 when Hank and I walked through the traveling “Baseball As America’’ exhibit.

Again, just me and the all-time Home Run King. Pretty cool.

An extremely muscular Barry Bonds was sitting on 567 home runs at the time. Bonds had just hit 73 home runs the previous season.

Make no mistake. In every way, Aaron knew what it took from his body and soul to break that Ruthian record that was held for so many decades by the Babe. He knew the abuse he had to take. He knew all about the letters that came his way threatening him and his family.

For Hank Aaron, this record was all about surviving when some bad people would have loved to have seen him dead. His life was threatened many times.

“Everybody can play baseball. You don’t have to have the color of white skin to play. You can be black, you can be brown, you can be from anywhere. That’s what makes baseball so special.’’

“You have a job to do,’’ he told me that early morning as he looked at one of the ugly racist letters that was sent to him and was on display in the exhibit.

The avalanche of hate mail was overwhelming.

“I received so many of them,’’ he said, “I tried to not let it bother me.’’

But it did. Of course it did. When I asked Aaron how much mail, some of it was positive, came in he told me over a million pieces of mail. Imagine that. Hank Aaron persevered and broke the record, hitting No. 715 on April 8, 1974 in the Braves first home game of the season.

When he hit No. 715 it was one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history and Vin Scully’s classic call said it all. Early in his career when Aaron came up with the Milwaukee Braves, it was obvious from the start in 1954 that he was going to be a star because of the way he could hit the ball to all fields. He won his only World Series with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, beating the Yankees in seven games. He batted .393 with three home runs, seven RBI and a 1.200 OPS.

In 1956 he won the NL batting title. In ’57 he won the MVP, his only MVP award.

Hammerin’ Hank retired after the 1976 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving 97.8 percent of the vote, second at the time only to Ty Cobb who was inducted in 1936. He should have been unanimous, of course.

And on this day about a month before the start of the 2002 season, even though Big Barry was still 188 home runs from Aaron’s 755, Aaron knew his record was in jeopardy. “I think Barry is going to break it,’’ Aaron told me, steeling himself for that moment as we walked through the wide halls of the museum. Aaron had recently shot a commercial with Bonds that aired during the Super Bowl. “I had a wonderful time with him, a wonderful time,’’ Hank said. “I hope he understood what I said. I told him to retire.’’

Then Hank smiled at me.

You remember the commercial. A bulked up Bonds is launching home runs in batting practice when a voice from above says: “Barry Bonds, it’s time. It’s time to walk into retirement.’’

This was a commercial for Charles Schwab and suddenly Bonds is aggravated by The Voice and is over-swinging and not hitting home runs.

The Voice, of course is Hank Aaron on the PA system.

Bonds did not retire. Somehow he just kept getting better with age and continued to launch home runs like it was batting practice.

Amazing how that all happened.

As we walked, Aaron was truly touched by some of the artifacts he saw like Joe Jackson’s spikes, Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, some of his own memorabilia and he said this of the exhibit with his earnest way of speaking: “This says one thing, that Baseball is America. It always will be, and it is America’s pastime.’’

The love for the game was in his voice.

Aaron would wind up No. 1 in home runs when he retired until Bonds came along and broke his record. He remains No. 1 in total bases with 6,856, runs batted in with 2,297 and No. 3 in hits with 3,771 behind Pete Rose and Cobb. Three different seasons he hit the same number of home runs as his jersey, 44. Just take a look at his 1956 season in Milwaukee. He led the league in hits with 200, doubles (34), total bases (340) and batting average with a .328 mark. He also managed to hit 14 triples and knocked in 106 runs.

Again, that’s 14 triples, take a notice, front office nerds. In 2019, the last full season of games, only one major league team hit more triples that season than Aaron hit in 1956 and that was the Rockies with 16. That’s one telling statistic about what has been lost in the game. But Aaron excelled at everything.

Like he told me, he did his job.

“You don’t have to be 6-6, 280 to play baseball,’’ Hank said that morning on the tape. “Everybody can play baseball. You don’t have to have the color of white skin to play. You can be black, you can be brown, you can be from anywhere. That’s what makes baseball so special.’’

Aaron wasn’t afraid to look at baseball’s issues as well. On this day 19 years ago he said, “There are still some things that need to be done. Baseball belongs to everybody. It doesn’t belong to certain groups of people. There should be black ownership in baseball. I know basketball has gone so far ahead of both sports – baseball and football and that’s not fair, I’m talking about black ownership, participation with general managers, managers and coaches and we are, we are still bogged down with, ‘Well should we have a black owner.’ Baseball is a great game. I played it for 23 years and I have to say everything I have belonged to baseball… but I gave baseball everything I had. And that can be true of all players but particularly the black players because we didn’t have the opportunity like some of the white players.’’

Aaron played in the Negro Leagues. He was extremely proud of coming from Mobile, Alabama and all the great players who came out of that area. “For the population of Alabama, we have more Hall of Famers from that city than anywhere. It’s a Hall of Fame city: Ozzie Smith, Billy Williams, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, you can go on and on,’’ he said. “I’m quite proud of that and it just shows one thing, if given the opportunity we all can play just as well as anybody. It’s a game for everybody and that is the way it should be viewed, this game belongs to all of us.’’

I then asked Henry what’s the next step for baseball, how does it get to be where it needs to be and he laughed and said, “I’ve been trying to figure that one out for a long time.’’

We circled back to the home run record. I asked if the record is broken, will he embrace it.

“Oh yeah,’’ Hank said. “I might not be there. It wouldn’t bother me. I always said records were made to be broken.’’

He was there, at least on the video screen when Bonds broke his record.

Aaron knows what the home run means to baseball. He went on to tell me, “Baseball was built on the home run. I’ve never known of anyone going to a ballgame and say, ‘Oh, somebody is going to pitch a no-hitter.’ They are going to see a home run. If they don’t see a home run they are going to get disgusted.

“I learned that when I was in the minor leagues. People love to cheer for home runs.’’

I would see Henry up in Cooperstown nearly every year during induction weekend. Seven years after this museum visit I was there when The Home Run King talked about the great records falling in the tainted era of steroids.

“It’s kind of sad,’’ Hank said that July day in 2009. Then he offered this most telling comment.

“I think the only thing you can look at, is that do you put these guys in and do you put names with an asterisk besides the name. ‘Hey they did it, but here’s why.’ To be safe that’s the only way I can see how you can do it.’’

Aaron was Mr. Consistent. He never hit more than 47 home runs in a season.

“I don’t see how, and I’ve played the game long enough and you guys have watched it long enough to know that it is impossible for players to hit 70-something home runs,’’ he said. “It just don’t happen… I think that is one reason why people’s eyes started opening up and said: ‘How can this guy do this? Somewhere on the plaque, ’73 home runs da, da, da he was accused …’

“That’s the only way you can do it.’’

This was two years after Bonds topped his career home run record. Again, Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001. Aaron said he believed PEDs gave an advantage because, “You can recuperate quickly to come back on the field.’’

Aaron added that if cheaters are voted into the Hall of Fame he would have no choice but “to accept them. You make a rule and you got to stand by it, you guys (writers) vote and that’s the way it is.’’

Hank Aaron hit another home run with those comments. Call it for what it is and add those asterisks to the Hall of Fame plaques.

That is just like adding them in the record books as well.

No matter what happens, 755 will always stand for something great.

Hank Aaron will always stand for something great. He played the game the right way and with class. To be able to spend time with him on that March morning in 2002 was one of the special days of being a sportswriter and when a legend passes, it is a wonderful way to remember Hank Aaron.

Yes, Barry Bonds is the king of home runs in numbers only.

Hank Aaron is the true Home Run King.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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