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Home Run King by Dan Schlossberg

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Exclusive to Paul Semendinger, Start Spreading The News 

By Dan Schlossberg, 10 Ballard Place, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410-3601 

 

[The following article, reprinted with permission of the author, is the introduction to the new biography Home Run King: the Remarkable Record of Hank Aaron, published by Skyhorse this spring. Dusty Baker wrote the foreword.] 



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By Dan Schlossberg 

 

Even the heavens will be celebrating.   

 

On April 8, 2024 – the 50th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s record – a partial solar eclipse will occur over Atlanta, Georgia at just past 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  

 

The timing of the celestial event can’t be a coincidence: it will just be another sign that Hank Aaron may be gone from earth but never from the imagination of its inhabitants – especially those who saw him play. 

 

Henry Louis Aaron was the best player I ever saw. And I’ve been covering baseball since 1969. 

 

Forget Willie, Mickey & Duke. Had Hank played in New York, or been more flamboyant, Terry Cashman might have written about him

 

Instead, we have the Ernie Harwell song More Over Babe, Here Comes Henry and more than a dozen Aaron books, including three autobiographies. 

 

But only one – the first one – was written by a journalist who is also an ardent Aaron fan. 

 

That first book, Hammerin’ Hank: the Henry Aaron Story, was my first, produced for Stadia Sports Publishing in 1974 and in bookstores before he surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run total, the most celebrated record in professional sports, on April 8, 1974. He finished with 755. 

 

Nobody else has ever hit more – at least not without the suspicion of using performance-enhancing substances. 

 

Barry Bonds hit 762 and won seven MVP awards in the process but has been barred from the Baseball Hall of Fame by both the beat writers and by the Contemporary Players Era panel, an off-shoot of the old Veterans Committee.  

 

Voters in both groups obviously wondered why Bonds reached the 50-homer plateau only once – in the year he suddenly smacked 73, a single-season standard that still stands. The cloud of suspicion grows darker every year – even 50 years after Aaron beat Ruth. 

 

It’s hard to believe a half-century has passed since that historic achievement. It’s also hard to believe it happened in the fourth game, in the fourth inning, in the fourth month of a year ending in 4, against a pitcher wearing No. 44 by a hitter wearing the exact same numerals. 

 

Although the Monday night game was carried by NBC and the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers, the audio that most frequently accompanies the video is Milo Hamilton’s account for Atlanta radio station WSB, then the flagship of the vast Braves radio network. 

 

As the co-author of Milo’s autobiography, Making Airwaves: 60 Years at Milo’s Microphone, he had to fight for the mic that night – but prevailed over Ernie Johnson, Sr. as the Braves’ lead announcer. Milo’s feelings on the matter are included in this book. 

 

So are comments from Eddie Mathews, who combined with Aaron to set the record for home runs by teammates (863); Dusty Baker, who was in the on-deck circle when Aaron connected; and even Kevin Barnes, who served as Aaron’s teenaged bat-boy at the time but has become a regular presence in the Atlanta pressbox as a stat man for visiting broadcasters. 

 

My interest in Aaron began in 1957, when my father and I watched the World Series between the Braves and Yankees on our black-and-white Zenith TV. At age 9, my first memories of the game included watching Lew Burdette win three games, two of them shutouts, against the powerful Yankees and watching Aaron hit .393 with three home runs. 

 

Burdette won the Chevrolet given to the World Series MVP but it wouldn’t be the first time Aaron was overlooked. 

 

Too quiet, too modest, and too humble, he let his bat speak for him. But his best years came long before the dot.com revolution, accompanied by the advent of cable television and satellite radio, gave baseball access to millions of fans who previously had to rely on newspapers and a weekly publication called The Sporting News, which even printed Triple-A boxscores. 

 

Aaron lacked the muscle of Mantle, the flair of Mays, or the swagger of Snider but finished far ahead of that trio in the record books. 

 

He was an All-Star a record 25 times in 23 seasons because the major leagues played two All-Star games a year from 1959-62 to raise money for the players pension fund. 

 

He had more runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, and extra-base hits than anyone in baseball history – including The Babe himself – and more home runs hit without the taint of steroids.  

 

He survived segregation in the Jim Crow South during spring training, a torrent of hate mail from fans who couldn’t bear the thought of a black man breaking a white hero’s record, and rejection by writers who voted him only one Most Valuable Player trophy when he should have had four. 

 

Then there were those nine so-called sportswriters who left Aaron’s name off their 10-man ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Nine! And that was before anyone was protesting the exclusion of Pete Rose for allegedly gambling on the game. 

 

By 1982, the year Aaron was inducted, he had finally won some respect both in baseball circles and from baseball fans at large.  

 

I should not have been surprised that nobody believed me when I told my classmates in Passaic, New Jersey that Hank Aaron was going to break Babe Ruth’s record. Ask any of them: I made the prediction 10 years before it actually happened

 

I bragged about Aaron so much that my high school friends called me “Hank” when they weren’t calling me “Vince,” since I also emulated Vin Scully’s habit of calling everyone fans.  

 

In driveway stickball games, we made up batting orders and pretended to be real players. Already an avid Braves fan, I tried harder when pretending to be Hank Aaron. And I always listed him third or fourth – the best spots in the order. 

 

A model of consistency, Aaron never hit more than 47 home runs in a season but always seemed to hit at least 30. He hit 45 once and matched his uniform No. 44 four times. He also maintained amazing physical condition, something his brother Tommie couldn’t do, and wound up on the disabled list only once, when he broke his leg sliding in September of his rookie year in 1954. 

 

Had he been with better teams, Hank Aaron might have earned more recognition. But he reached the World Series only twice, in 1957 and 1958, and narrowly missed a third chance when the Milwaukee Braves dropped a best-of-three pennant playoff to the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers. 

 

Hank made it to the very first National League Championship Series in 1969 but the favored Braves fell victim to the red-hot New York Mets, who swept a playoff that could have been best-of-three.  

 

Variously described as a wrist hitter, a guess hitter, and a man so relaxed that he looked like he was sleeping between pitches, he was a modest but muscular man whose 6-foot, 180-pound frame hardly looked intimidating. Until he swung the bat. 

 

Hank Aaron had all five tools: he hit for average, hit for power, and could run, field, and throw. He won three Gold Gloves for fielding excellence, enjoyed a 30/30 season, and won all three legs of the Triple Crown in multiple seasons – just not at the same time. 

 

Missing a Triple Crown and failing to hit for the cycle were the only disappointments in a long career that began when he boarded a train in Alabama with a sandwich in his hand and $2 in his pocket. 

 

Were Hank Aaron around today, he would no doubt own the Braves franchise. His top salary of $240,000 would be tip money today, when more than a dozen players earn more than $30 million a year. 


In addition to his exploits on the field, Hank Aaron was a hero in civilian clothes too. An outspoken champion of civil rights, he formed friendships with presidents and civil rights leaders. He quiet but steady excellence won him legions of admirers not only at home but also when the Braves visited other cities.  

 

He got so much fan mail that the U.S. Postal Service once gave him a medal as the person who received the most mail in the United States. Though the tenor of letters was overwhelmingly supportive, more than a few malcontents threatened the lives of the slugger and his family, forcing the team to provide him with bodyguards and housing separate from the team during road trips. 

 

Talk about irony: a man who once couldn’t stay with the team because of segregation that lingered long after Jackie Robinson integrated the majors now couldn’t stay with the team because he was a black man pursuing a white man’s record.  

 

Like Robinson, who broke the color line seven years before Aaron reached the majors, Hank Aaron burned inside but kept his cool, never giving the naysayers more ammunition. Though disappointed that he didn’t realize his ambition to be a manager or even a general manager, he eschewed conflict and controversy as much as humanly possible. 

 

He aged nicely, establishing widespread respect as a humanitarian, civil rights advocate, and successful businessman – dabbling in everything from restaurants to car dealerships in addition to Cable News Network and various positions with the Braves. He had tough decisions to make, even cutting son Lary and future Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, but always proved the epitome of grace under pressure. 

 

He knew politicians, movie stars, and other celebrities who seemed truly delighted to befriend him.  

 

In fact, I was interviewing him in the Atlanta clubhouse after a game in September 1973 when the Governor of Georgia stopped by to say hello. 

 

Aaron excused himself and shook hands with a smiling Jimmy Carter while I waited to resume the interview. A picture of that event circulated on MLB.com early in the 2023 season. 

 

The very next day, Carter announced he was running for president – an event the Atlanta Journal Constitution headlined JIMMY CARTER IS RUNNING FOR WHAT

 

Hank Aaron could have run for president himself. I would have voted for him. 


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Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author or co-author of 41 baseball books, including autobiographies of Milo Hamilton, Al Clark, and Ron Blomberg. This is his second Hank Aaron biography. To book a talk and power point on the new book, email ballauthor@gmail.com. 

 

3 Comments


Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Apr 10

In the 14 years from 1956 to 1969, Aaron put up 112 WAR, an average of 8.0 per year. At the 2024 rate of $6.7 million/WAR, that's $53.6 million per year, or $750.4 million over those 14 years -- and none of that is deferred.


Or, if you used MLB service time rules before free agency, Aaron would have been a free agent after the 1959 and his age-25 season. The next 10 years brought 80.9 WAR worth $542 million (or $54.2 million per season).


He was one of the all-time greats, no doubt, and his memory is a blessing.

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fuster
Apr 10

Aaron lacked the muscle of Mantle, the flair of Mays, or the swagger of Snider but finished far ahead of that trio in the record books. 


some stylish Schlossberg

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Paul Semendinger
Paul Semendinger
Apr 10
Replying to

Dan Schlossberg is a gifted writer, no doubt.

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