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100 Things Braves Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Jack Wilkinson
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Jack Wilkinson
All rights reserved.
A+, as in Aaron
The ball, like the Hammer himself, is larger than life. Much, much larger. How much? Try 100 feet in diameter. Try looking up, up, four or five stories up. Those are the measurements of an enormous color photograph of a baseball. The very ball Henry Aaron lined over the left-field wall one long-ago April evening and into the Atlanta Braves bullpen, into the record and history books, and on into posterity.
It's the 715 ball. The one that broke the Babe's career home run record. In terms of sheer size and significance, the photo is baseball's ultimate tape-measure shot.
Much like that photograph, which looms over the Fan Plaza at Turner Field, Henry Louis Aaron still hovers over his franchise and his adopted hometown. He is a towering presence in Atlanta, and remains so nearly four decades after breaking baseball's most hallowed record.
Aaron played here, brilliantly. He made history here, heroically. He continues to live and thrive here, financially and personally. More than any other citizen of the South's flagship city, Aaron and Atlanta are conjoined at the A. No one else comes close. Not Ted Turner. Not Jimmy Carter. Not Bobby Cox or Beyoncé. Someone says Atlanta, you think Aaron.
To get to Turner Field, you drive or walk from the golden dome of the state capitol building down a street that begins as Capitol Avenue but soon becomes — what else? — Hank Aaron Drive. You can see the photo of the ball nearly a quarter-mile away. The closer you get to the ballpark, the bigger the ball and the man who hammered it become.
The dimensions of the photograph, of course, are just that: merely dimensions. And Aaron, the very best of all Braves, one of baseball's greatest all-around players and now once again the peoples' choice as the legitimate home run king, was anything but one-dimensional as a player.
His greatness is spread all over baseball's hit lists. Aaron holds more major league batting records than any player in the game's long history. He drove in 2,297 runs. He lashed out 1,477 extra-base hits. He amassed 6,856 total bases. He finished in the top 10 in six other major career categories and compiled a lifetime batting average of .305. Yet Aaron also won four RBI titles, three Gold Gloves, two batting titles and the 1957 National League MVP Award, and led the NL in homers four times.
"About the only thing I didn't do," he once said, "is win a stolen base title."
However, it's his home runs we immediately think of when we think of Henry Aaron.
He hit this historic 715th off the Dodgers' Al Downing on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta to surpass Babe Ruth, and endured hell en route to that milestone. The 755th and last he belted back in Milwaukee, where Aaron began his big-league career in 1954 and ended it in 1976. The 109th, in September of 1957, which Aaron later acknowledged was his most satisfying, even more so than the 715th. That 11th-inning walk-off blast, one of the young Aaron's National League — leading 44 homers that season, that clinched the pennant for the Braves. Milwaukee went on to win its only World Series championship.
"I galloped around the bases, and when I touched home plate, the whole team was there to pick me up and carry me off the field," Aaron later reflected. "I had always dreamed about a moment like Bobby Thomson had in '51, and this was it."
We know where we were when "Bad Henry," as Don Drysdale, the late Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher, admiringly called Aaron during their playing days, hit No. 715. Much like we recall where we were when JFK was assassinated, when Neil Armstrong took a small step for man on the Moon, or when the Berlin wall came tumbling down. We remember 715. Long gone. Never forgotten.
It wasn't until Aaron surpassed Ruth, though, that the awful truth eventually came out: the racism he'd endured, the pure hatred and vitriol, the hate mail and death threats aimed squarely at the color of a man's skin. It began in the 1972 season and built throughout '73 as Aaron, at age 39, hit 40 homers to finish the year with 713, one shy of Ruth's record.
"All I've got to do this winter," he said at season's end, "is stay alive."
Of course, long before he challenged Ruth, Aaron had encountered racism in baseball. As a teenager, the young infielder from Mobile, Alabama, briefly played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. One weekend, their doubleheader in Washington, D.C., at Griffith Stadium — home of the Washington Senators — was rained out. As Aaron recalled in his autobiography I Had a Hammer, written with Lonnie Wheeler: "We had breakfast while they were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing [restaurant employees] break all the plates in the kitchen after we were finished eating. What a horrible sound. Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they'd have washed them."
A quarter-century and untold anguish later, at 9:07 pm on a Monday night, 715 finally took flight. In his second at-bat, when the rain subsided as if on cue, Aaron lined the historic homer into the Braves' bullpen, into the glove of teammate Tom House. The reliever ran toward home plate and hand-delivered the historic ball to Aaron. His father, Herbert, hugged his son. Then his mother, Estella, finally embraced him. A crowd of 53,775 roared its approval. Henry Aaron could finally exhale and say, "Thank God."
Vin Scully, the Dodgers' iconic broadcaster, said this to his Los Angeles audience: "Fastball ... there's a high drive to deep left-center field. Buckner goes back to the fence, it is ... GONE!"
Scully paused, for one minute, 44 seconds. The only sounds: the cheering of the crowd and fireworks exploding in the night air. Then: "What a marvelous moment for baseball! What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia! What a marvelous moment for the country and the world! A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol."
And later, tellingly, this: "Aaron is being mobbed by photographers. He's holding his right hand high in the air. And for the first time in a long time that poker face of Aaron's shows the tremendous strain, and relief, of what it must have been like to live with for the last several months."
Watching the telecast that night was a young Atlantan named Arington Hendley. Twenty-three years later, by then an accomplished photographer, Hendley was hired by a design firm to shoot the 715 ball for use at Turner Field. He drove to Aaron's home in southwest Atlanta, and wound up in the slugger's trophy room in the basement.
"He introduced himself as Henry Aaron," Hendley said. "I've shot the top golfers and some movie stars. Those guys, I couldn't have cared less about. But Hank Aaron was entirely different. I was shaking like a leaf."
Not that it was Aaron's fault. On the contrary, "He was just this quiet, unassuming, and accommodating gentleman," Hendley said, "and he was just treated like dirt [during the home run chase]. I mean, I felt guilty being white. I just desperately wanted to apologize to him for the entire white race."
Hendley said nothing, then did something regrettable. "I was so intimidated," he said. "Here it was, I was with the guy who I thought hung the Moon, and I screwed up the job. I blew it. I didn't expose the film properly.
"The photograph's a picture of a baseball. Almost anybody could've done it, and they probably wouldn't have screwed it up the first time. It became this piece of art I was trying to make. I wanted to hit a home run with his ball."
The first shots weren't detailed enough, and the significance of the 715 shot is not just in its size but in the details. "You could see where the ball was hit, which I discovered when we took the ball out of its case," Hendley said. "I showed it to Hank, and he said, 'Yeah, that's it.'"
Aaron agreed to let the ball be photographed once more. This time, Hendley hit his homer. Now anytime anyone comes to Turner Field, they can see the ball and precisely where Aaron's bat launched No. 715. It's not bad for Hendley's business. "In advertising," he said, "people ask what I've taken pictures of, and I say, 'Hank Aaron's ball at the stadium.' They go, 'Ooooh!'"
And the photo also befits Aaron's stature in his sport, his city, and history, especially now that steroids are no longer baseball's dirty secret. McGwire. A-Rod. Does anyone believe Bonds or Clemens? But people can still believe in Aaron. And they do.
As Dwight Garner wrote in his May 2010 New York Times book review of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant's superb biography: "In an era in which home runs are now a discredited commodity, Henry Aaron looms larger than ever: a nation has returned its lonely eyes to him."CHAPTER 2
It was a sign of the times and nigh perfect. Rarely has one sign captured a moment, a city's psyche and sense of joy and relief, a team and a time so perfectly. All in just one word:
That's how the homemade sign read, the one a fan held aloft on the evening of October 28, 1995 — the night the Atlanta Braves won the World Series at blessed last.
"Guys, that says it all right there," Joe Morgan, the Hall of Famer–turned-broadcaster, told his on-air TV partners at game's end. "Finally."
"The team of the '90s has its world championship," play-by-play man Bob Costas declared after the Braves beat Cleveland 1–0 in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, behind Tom Glavine's eight-inning, one-hit pitching masterpiece and a solo homer by the lightning rod David Justice. With that, the Atlanta Braves joined their 1957 Milwaukee and 1914 Boston forebears as the only clubs in franchise history to win the Fall Classic.
This, after so many seasons of atrocious baseball in Atlanta. This, after losing 106 games in 1988, then back-to-back 97-loss seasons. This, after the worst-to-first wonder of '91, only to suffer Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning walk-off homer in Game 6, then a 1–0, 10th-inning heartbreak to Jack Morris and the Minnesota Twins in Game 7 of the greatest World Series ever. The Francisco Cabrera–Sid Bream miracle in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS was trumped by Dave Winfield's 11th-inning double to give Toronto the World Series title. In '93, after prevailing in a magnificent NL West pennant race with San Francisco, an exhausted Atlanta was no match for Philadelphia in the NLCS.
"So many disappointments," Tom Glavine said.
Not after the strike-shortened 1994 season. In 1995 the Braves won the NL East by a staggering 21 games. They dispatched wild-card Colorado in the initial NL Division Series then swept Cincinnati. In the World Series Braves pitchers would hold Cleveland's potent lineup to a .179 batting average. Despite losing Game 5 at Jacobs Field, the Braves returned home up 3–2.
On the off day, Justice teed off on Atlanta fans. "They'll probably burn down our houses if we don't win," he told reporters. "They're not behind us like the Cleveland fans, who were standing and cheering even when they were three runs down."
This infuriated Atlanta fans. Justice was booed fiercely, angrily when the starting lineups were announced, and again before his first at-bat. All that changed with one swing of the bat in the sixth inning, when Justice led off with a home run. This, after Glavine had surrendered a bloop single to Tony Pena in the top half, Cleveland's only hit of the night.
"Just get me one!" Glavine screamed as he walked into the dugout. One run. Justice obliged. As he crossed home plate, Bob Costas said, "Dave Justice, all is forgiven in Atlanta."
That was all the run support Glavine needed. That, and ninth-inning relief help from closer Mark Wohlers, who began by getting speedy Kenny Lofton to foul out to Pac Man — aka shortstop Rafael Belliard, who'd gobbled up everything all year. Paul Sorrento flied out, and that brought Carlos Baerga to the plate and the Braves to the brink.
"In the ninth inning, Mark [Wohlers] is in, and I just remember sitting there in the dugout, knowing we were on the verge of doing what we wanted to do — finally winning the World Series," Glavine said. "It's just an eternity for that inning to end. It's taking forever: Come on, hurry up! I thought to myself.
"I think the key to that inning was Raffy running down the line to get Lofton's ball. The key was to keep Lofton off base. We get the next out, and then there's that fly ball ..."
"When Baerga hit it," Justice said, "I thought, Oh my God! I thought it was out." He was not alone.
Skip Caray's call said it all: "Fly ball, deep left-center ... Grissom on the run ... Yes! Yes! YES! The Atlanta Braves have given you a world championship!!!"
Each "Yes!" reverberated with an echo courtesy of Caray's colleague Joe Simpson, who was standing behind him in the broadcast booth and yelling "Yes!" in concert with Skip. Simpson wasn't working the ninth inning. But like all of Atlanta, he was celebrating. Finally.
"It was like the weight of the world was off of our shoulders," Justice said. "We'd finally won the World Series!"
"In the short time it took for that ball to settle into Marquis' glove, there were so many emotions," said Glavine. "I played it out from the start of the season. This is what we came to spring training for, to win the World Series and to run out on the field with my buddies.
"We'd had so many disappointments. We had this group of guys, all these guys who'd played together and been around each other in the system and then the major leagues, and we'd finally tasted success after so many disappointments. That's what made it so special."
Frankie, Sid, and Skip
With genuine respect and all due apologies to Henry Aaron, the most dramatic moment in Braves franchise history was not his record-breaking home run. No. 715 was a foregone conclusion by that point, a matter of when, not if. But no one could have foreseen what unfolded on the evening of October 14, 1992.
For the second straight season, the Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates met in the National League Championship Series. Once again, it came down to a decisive Game 7. John Smoltz, who'd beaten the Bucs in Game 7 of the 1991 NLCS, had already defeated Doug Drabek twice in this series. Yet it was Drabek, not Smoltz, who carried a 2–0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning as he walked to the mound in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
In NLCS play Terry Pendleton had gone 0-for-15 against Drabek. But he led off with a double to right. This, after all, was Pendleton, the 1991 NL Most Valuable Player who later admitted, "I thought I had a better year in '92." An All-Star Game starter that year, the third baseman finished second in the MVP voting despite batting .311 with 21 homers, a career-high 105 RBIs and 199 hits (including an Atlanta-record 39 doubles). Still, he didn't repeat as the MVP.
Excerpted from 100 Things Braves Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Jack Wilkinson. Copyright © 2014 Jack Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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