In the long ago years of my youth, those years when the outcome of sporting events – check that, the mere presence of sporting events – was a powerful motivating force to compel rising in the morning and an even more powerful force to compel staying up at night in front of a television, Henry Aaron was a giant. He was also Hank Aaron, a sportsified name that was a little more accessible and a little less dignified than perhaps the man deserved. A small matter, that, like all things related to Aaron, seems somehow more important now that he is gone. In any case, Aaron was larger than a name, and larger than most things on this earth. We knew a little of that then, and learned more later, as the years passed, and we were – slightly – more willing to bear the full, discomforting weight of his story.
The most famous night of Aaron’s life was April 8, 1974, when in the fourth inning of the fourth game of the new baseball season, Aaron hit his 715th career home run off Al Downing of the Dodgers, breaking Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old career record. I watched it in the second floor bedroom that I shared with my younger brother in our creaky, old house on Adams Street in Whitehall, N.Y., a small upstate village on the edge of the Adirondacks. I was upstairs under the premise of [air quotes] doing homework [end air quotes], but I was a senior in high school, already accepted to college, and killing time. Besides, the “doing homework’’ bit was a ruse that my parents had seen through years earlier. The TV, a 19-inch black-and-white model, lived on a squeaky metal cart which could be wheeled to spots in the room, most often the gap between our two beds. We had a big antenna on the roof that looked like a spider with arthritis.
While Aaron was a presence in my sports fan’s world, I did not, strictly speaking, like him. I was a fan of the New York Mets, who had carried me, in youthful joy, to a World Series victory in 1969 and a National League pennant in ’73. Aaron was an opponent, but he was one of those opponents who was feared more than hated. It surprised me today to re-learn (because I must have known this at some point) that Aaron was a very average-sized man, 6-0 and 180 pounds; generations later we have come to expect sports stars to be giants, often at our ethical peril. Back to the moment: The entire baseball world – and far beyond – was acutely aware of Aaron in the spring of 1974, as he chased Ruth. He hit No. 714 on the first afternoon of the season, a Thursday. I was at the local drug store shopping for record albums when a friend told me that news. Seven one four. In the books.
Henry Aaron was remembered Friday, and should be remembered in perpetuity, for the powerfully American life that he lived – a life full of not just – or even most importantly – towering achievement, but also for remarkable strength and dignity in fighting the systemic racism that was, and remains, endemic to American life, and which loosed itself on Aaron most aggressively as he chased Ruth. In 1994, Aaron told my friend, Bill Rhoden, of The New York Times, “April 8th, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball,” Aaron said. “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these thing have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
As a 17-year-old white kid living in a town with zero black residents (I had a Latino classmate transplanted from New York City, to live with a local family; and an exchange student from Argentina. That was our diversity), I was even more disconnected from the reality of Aaron’s life than most. But I was swept up in the early spring of 1974 for one reason (or three). Seven One Four.
Numbers have become an overwhelming presence in sports, through the analytics revolution and through the firehose of the Internet. This is all good. If you are looking for analytics hate, look elsewhere. Our ability to better understand games through more complex and more revealing statistics is sensational, if at times overwhelming. But this is also true: While numbers have become more important, they have also become less powerful. In that spring of 1974, the No. 714 was, for me – and many others – the connective tissue that bound us to Aaron, and would eventually help us understand him.
To children of the ’60s and ’70s, who were immersed in sports, there were precious few statistics that planted flags in our fanaticism. We lived largely – but not entirely – by the eye test. The exceptions stuck. Beamon’s 29-2 ½. Wilt’s 100-point game, which none of us saw, but which lived in the mist. Bannister’s four-minute mile, of which we saw only that one famous, finish-line photo. For me, there was also Pistol Pete averaging more than 44 points per game. But if you cared remotely about baseball, there were numbers you knew: 2,130, 56, 511. You don’t need any more information.
Even more ubiquitous than these was 714, carried across time by the legend of The Babe, in the 1970s still largely untarnished. (Former Sports Illustrated writer Robert Creamer’s book, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, was published in that same year of ’74; it was the first warts-and-all study of The Babe, the first crack in the dam of gilded perfection). Seven fourteen was a note in a bottle, floated across the decades, a number that was easily understood, yet at the same time, held in awe. As Aaron approached it , he become larger (to some, like me), more threatening (to many others; how dare a black man unseat The Babe).
But it’s unarguable that the numbers 714, and then 715, and then 755 (his final total) changed Aaron’s place in our – and his own — history. Had he been less consistent (he never hit 50 home runs in a season, never more than 47; but hit at least 20 a remarkable 20 times), or had he been less durable (from 1955-’70 he never played fewer than 145 games in a season), his story becomes less told. Had he missed just one season in his prime, or parts of several; had he retired early or simply been a less determined man, perhaps he would have finished with 660 home runs (like Willie Mays) or 696 (like Alex Rodriguez). We would never have known how much he endured, simply to change one digit in the record book.
It is, of course, true of all great athletes (and all famous people), that we learn of their struggles – or their indiscretions – because of what they achieve. That is the bargain that humans have with the world around them, ever noisier as time passes. Accomplishment is the cover charge to influence. Henry Aaron would have been a baseball player of great significance had he finished with 713 home runs, or if Ruth had somehow reached 800 or more, and one had not passed the other.
But Ruth stopped at 714, and Aaron kept going and for that reason, we learned of his pain, his dignity, and his power, all in detail that we would never otherwise have known, or embraced. Just three numbers for a man to chase. A ball struck over a fence, a life revealed, a strong man empowered to share his truth.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.