Hank took hammerin'

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:43 AM ET

He really had it rough during the home run chase.

Chasing a beloved icon, hoping to displace a Hall of Famer's name from baseball's record book.

Not everyone cheered.

That's the way it was 32 Aprils ago.

Barry Bonds is now three homers away from passing Babe Ruth and while he argues he has it tough too, it is nothing like what Henry (Hammerin' Hank) Aaron experienced.

Much of the wrath Bonds has incurred has been brought on by himself.

The San Francisco Giants slugger is good one-on-one with reporters, giving insightful answers, but in a group he can be curt or he can ramble.

And then there is the trust issue. Aaron may have hit a couple of wind-aided homers, but how many of Bonds' 712 homers were aided by steroids as speculated?

Aaron's 1973 season was considered a disappointment by some as he hit only 40 homers that year, leaving him one shy of Ruth.

The Atlanta Braves wanted him to sit out the first series in Cincinnati in 1974 so the record would fall in Atlanta. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insisted he played and Aaron hit No. 714, tying Ruth, on opening day against Jack Billingham in his second at-bat.

We watched the Braves slugger hit his 715th career homer on ABC's Monday Night Baseball off Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Al Downing.

The ball cleared the left-field fence and Braves reliever Tommy House caught the ball in the bullpen at Fulton County Stadium.

As Aaron rounded second, two fans, who had jumped on to field to celebrate the sheer joy of the moment, accompanied him for part of his historic home run trot.

Years later, we read of the daily hatred Aaron faced as he chased Ruth and realized that the gentle man had walked through living hell to becoming home run king.

Death threats. Racial hate mail.

Aaron kept the letters in a box in his attic for motivation to improve baseball's poor record on minority hires.

He constantly was surrounded by security. An Atlanta cop was at his side on off days. Some thought Ruth's record should be passed by Mickey Mantle and only Mantle.

Growing up, all we saw were the sweet swing and the results. As kids at leafy Victoria Park in Kingston, we spent summer afternoons doing impressions of our favourite big leaguers and their stance.

We were 10-year-olds, a million miles and light years away from a big-league game until Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean broadcast the game of the week.

We'd mimic hitting stances of Dick McAuliffe of the Detroit Tigers, hands held amazingly high; Cleveland Indians' Vic Power, the bat slowly moving to and fro awaiting a pitch; or Cincinnati Reds muscular slugger Ted Kluszewski, rolling up our sleeves to show biceps we didn't have.

A fave was Aaron, who played in a strange-sounding city called Milwaukee ... before the Braves moved to Atlanta. Not that his stance was distinctive, but to us the young Brave had style.

When the Braves were on TV we'd watch him kneel in the on-deck circle, lean on his bat, helmet held in one huge paw. Someone bought a plastic Braves helmet -- without ear flaps -- like Aaron's.

We'd emulate Aaron's slow, knock-kneed, head-down walk from the first-base dugout, respectfully passing behind our imaginary ump to stand in the right-handed hitter's box.

His helmet held in the left hand, lumber in the right. Settling in, he'd rest the bat against his crotch and use both hands to push the helmet snugly on top of his Braves cap.

We'd copy his walk and habits, but, of course, no one could match his swing. Most major leaguers couldn't match the power he generated from his quick wrists.

We wonder how many kids mimic Bonds.


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