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WHEN HANK PASSED THE BABE

Hank Aaron The morning of April 8, 1974, dawned like almost any other in Atlanta. The bald rock of Stone Mountain hovered to the east, and the early-morning aroma of bacon and eggs emanated from the greasy spoons. But there was one big difference this Monday morning. As commuters hurried toward their offices, most shared the same thought: Will he do it tonight?

The Braves were opening their home season that evening at Atlanta Stadium in a game that played merely a supporting role to the grandest drama ever to unfold in baseball history. At the top of the all-time home run list, Hank Aaron, by virtue of his 714th career homer April 4 at Cincinnati, was perched in a tie with the most legendary hero in sports history, George Herman Ruth.

One more snap of Aaron's fabled wrists could bring The Hammer's glorious yet sometimes painful pursuit of The Babe's once-untouchable record to an end this evening. The world had been awaiting and watching for months as the build-up reached gargantuan proportions. All eyes and ears were now focused on Atlanta for that one swing that would propel one of the most talented yet unassuming men ever to play the game into instant immortality.

The promotional minds in the Braves front office made sure no one would underestimate the magnitude of the occasion. A huge outline of the United States filled with a pseudo-American flag adorned the center-field grass. The 45-minute pregame ceremony turned into an event of its own with balloons, speeches, a band, a choir, and Pearl Bailey, who sang the national anthem. Aaron's parents were there, along with Sammy Davis Jr., Georgia governor Jimmy Carter and Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.

The center of all the attention was Aaron himself, escorted onto the field at 7:47 p.m. through two lines of young girls dressed in shorts and Braves T-shirts and caps, holding bats high in a ceremonial arc.

A full house of 53,775 was on hand, along with the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers, who sent veteran left-hander Al Downing to the mound attempting to delay Aaron's mission. The crowd's attention, along with that of a national television audience, peaked when Aaron came to the plate to lead off the second inning. And Downing drew a cascade of boos by walking Aaron on five pitches, none of which attracted a swing. It seemed the Dodgers pitcher had no intention of becoming part of history if he could possibly avoid it.

Aaron scored later in the inning, breaking Willie Mays' National League record for runs. Not bad, but it wasn't what this night was all about.

In the fourth inning, Downing had his second meeting with Aaron, and this time there was no place to hide. With Darrell Evans on first base, no outs and the Dodgers leading, 3-1, Downing finally challenged Aaron. After throwing the first pitch in the dirt and drawing more boos, the 32-year-old Dodger delivered a high fastball. With a mean whip of the bat, his first swing of the evening, Aaron sent the specially marked ball into the Braves bullpen in left-center, approximately 400 feet from home plate, at 9:07 p.m. Left fielder Bill Buckner made an attempt to intercept history, but he had no chance to reach it.

The large message board in left-center flashed "715," and just like that, Hank Aaron was the all-time home run king. Pandemonium ensued. Fireworks exploded above the center-field roof. As Aaron circled the bases, two young men jumped out of the stands and joined him briefly between second and third before security guards escorted them off the field. When Aaron rounded third, he broke into a wide grin at the sight of his teammates waiting for him at the plate. Braves reliever Tom House, who caught No. 715 in the bullpen, raced to greet Aaron and present him the ball. The crowd roared for a full 10 minutes as Aaron was mobbed by teammates, relatives, friends and well-wishers.

Monte Irvin, representing Commisioner Bowie Kuhn (who was in Cleveland attending a meeting of the Wahoo Club), congratulated Aaron. When Irvin mentioned Kuhn, the crowd booed lustily, showing their scorn that he was the one person who had chosen to ignore the magnitude of Aaron's objective.

"I just thank God it's all over," said Aaron, who endured months of media interviews, near-constant scrutiny, and death threats and hate mail. He had hired a bodyguard, needed to find temporary living quarters in Atlanta, and registered under a false name at hotels on the road.

Aaron played the entire game, which the Braves won, 7-4. In the bottom of the sixth, when many of the fans had headed for home, he even paused in the dugout to take a congratulatory phone call from President Richard Nixon. Afterward, Aaron told hundreds of reporters, "The home run wouldn't have really meant that much to me if we hadn't won the game. Five years ago, I never thought I'd be in this position, but now that I am, I'm sure glad it's over with."