Jim Henneman: Remembering Covering Hank Aaron En Route To Home Run Record

There would seem to be more than a touch of irony that the weekend before the Hall of Fame was scheduled to announce its class of 2021, baseball lost one of the most iconic players in the game’s history.

Perhaps even more fitting might be the fact this year’s class could come up empty, without additional inductees. You just can’t replace Hank Aaron, who passed away Jan. 22 at the age of 86.

Aaron broke the most magical record in baseball, Babe Ruth’s career 714 home runs, and his 755 total is still regarded by the game’s purists as the “real” record, rather than the 762 hit by Barry Bonds during the era tainted by suspicion of widespread use of “artificial” supplements.

There was never anything suspicious about Aaron’s record, which was a remarkable study of consistency, but it wasn’t as readily accepted when he set it as it is today. That, more than anything, is what I remember most about “Hammerin’ Hank,” though I have to admit it wasn’t as obvious to me at the time.

What I do remember, rather vividly, is the anticipation and the buildup leading to the 1974 season. That was my first spring training working on the Orioles’ beat for The News American — and the Orioles, training in Miami, and Braves, in West Palm Beach, were frequent preseason opponents in those days. Aaron had finished 1973 with 713 home runs, and the following spring training was dominated by press conferences before or after games, sometimes both.

The final two exhibition games that year were part of a “mini-barnstorming” tour with stops in New Orleans and Birmingham, notable stops for different reasons for me, but the end of a long, probably grueling spring training for Aaron.

The Orioles were widely known to be for sale at that time and New Orleans made no pretense about trying to influence a move, which of course was a bigger story in Baltimore than Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s record. The biggest story I remember from that visit was the discovery that you couldn’t see home plate from many of the good seats in the Superdome’s upper deck, which dulled hopes of securing a big-league team. Birmingham was significant only because it remains the only time I’ve ever been in Alabama.

Meanwhile, Aaron was alternately hearing either the same questions from a revolving band of media members or, occasionally, something different from the regular contingent from Atlanta and Baltimore. Having endured a winter of discontent dealing with considerable hate mail, including some lethal threats on his physical well being, Aaron understandably was bored by the process by the time spring training was winding down.

At one point I remember him saying in effect, “Guys, can’t you come up with some different questions?” To which the reply inevitably was, “Hank, can you come up with some different answers?”

As the teams broke to head north I remember that the Braves seemed to be a very loose bunch, and it was obvious that Aaron breaking Ruth’s record was a dominant factor entering into the season. Years later Johnny Oates, the former Orioles manager who was on that club, confirmed as much saying the Braves were “the most disorganized team” he’d ever played for.

For Aaron, spring training that year was a daily preliminary to what he would go through during an opening series in Cincinnati, where he tied Ruth’s record in the first game, and in Atlanta, where he broke the record in the Braves’ home opener, April 8. For me personally, the thought of even partially covering the lead-up to the breaking of an historic record during my first spring training, was a bonus … one still paying dividends all these years later.

One of my favorite memories of that year came on the Orioles’ first trip into Milwaukee, which had been the Braves’ home for the first 12 years of Aaron’s career. On the ride from the airport to the hotel our bus drove past a restaurant marquee sign that said: “Congrats Hank, It Should Have Happened Here.”

It was only a matter of time before he returned. Bud Selig, the former owner-turned-commissioner who first met Aaron in 1958 and would become his closest friend in the game, brought him back “home” for the final two years of his career.

In those and the many subsequent years after his induction into the Hall of Fame (with Frank Robinson in 1981), I had the pleasure of enjoying a much more relaxed and genuinely nice man who understood and appreciated his place in baseball history without any sense of pretense. The perfect bookend for the early memories of a remarkable career.

The Hall of Fame will announce the 2021 voting results Jan. 26, and all indications are this year will be as blank as at least six of the ballots that were submitted.

Early returns on the ballots that have been made public prior to the announcement indicate there will be no additions to the 2020 class of Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Marvin Miller, whose induction was postponed until this year because of the pandemic.

At last glance Curt Schilling was running slightly below the necessary 75 percent needed for induction while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were slightly further behind. Traditionally the unpublished votes by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (most of which become public two weeks after the announcement) run lower than those revealed earlier.

With less than 50 percent of the final total reported, the six blank ballots are an indication that the previous record of 10, in 2006, could be in jeopardy. There had been some sentiment expressed a year ago for Jeter’s career to be recognized by him being a sole inductee from the active ballot, a move that might have worked had it not been Walker’s last year of eligibility.

None of this year’s first time eligibles were expected to draw substantial support, with pitchers Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson and outfield Torii Hunter the most significant of the “rookie” candidates. I’ll have more discussion, along with an explanation of my vote in next month’s print issue of PressBox. Spoiler alert: no surprises from this end, but I’m sure some disagreement.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum