Friday, January 29, 2021

John Chaney, 1932-2021

If you only know Bob Knight as a raving lunatic who happened to be a great college basketball coach, then you need to know more.

The same was true for John Chaney, who may have changed even more lives for the better. Certainly, he changed lives more than Knight did.

John Chaney (no middle name) was born on January 21, 1932 in Jacksonville, Florida. Like pretty much any black man in the South who wanted to go to college, he had to go to one of the South's "historically black colleges and universities" (HBCUs). In his case, it would be Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, from which he graduated in 1955.

At this point, the NBA had black players, but not many. And Chaney was not drafted. So he played in the next-highest league, the Eastern Professional Basketball League, for the Sunbury Mercuries from 1955 to 1963, and the Williamsport Billies until 1966. Both of those teams were in Pennsylvania. That got the attention of basketball people in that State, particularly in its largest city, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia was already a great basketball city. Its "Big Five" (or "Big 5," if you prefer) schools are Temple University, which had won the 1st NIT in 1938, and had already been to what we now call the NCAA Final Four in 1956 and 1958; La Salle University, which won the National Championship in 1954 and got back to the Final in 1955; Villanova University, which made the 1st Final Four in 1939; St. Joseph's University, which had made the Final Four in 1961; and the University of Pennsylvania, one of the earliest great programs, and whose 1927-built arena, The Palestra, hosted many Big 5 games, many of them not even featuring Penn, and became known as "The Cathedral of Basketball."

In addition, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a.k.a. the Philadelphia SPHAs, were one of the earliest great professional teams, and evolved into the Philadelphia Warriors, the 1st NBA Champions in 1947, won the title again in 1956, and moved in 1962, eventually becoming the Golden State Warriors. In 1963, they were replaced by the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1963, while still playing for Williamsport, John Chaney got his 1st coaching job, at Sayre Junior High School in Sayre, Bradford County, in Northeast Pennsylvania. In 1966, he hung up his sneakers to take the job at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia.

Simon Gratz was a longtime member of the Philadelphia Board of Education. By the time Chaney got there, the school had already produced Baseball Hall-of-Famer Roy Campanella, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Leroy Kelly, longtime Warriors and 76ers statistician Harvey Pollack, singer Eddie Fisher, songwriter Artie Singer (who had co-written "At the Hop" and "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" for South Philly doo-wop group Danny & The Juniors), and future Congressman Bill Gray. It has since produced boxing champion Meldrick Taylor and 2 NBA stars: Rasheed Wallace and a player Chaney would coach, Aaron McKie.

When Chaney got to Gratz, they were coming off a season in which they won exactly one game. He took them to a 63-23 record in 6 seasons. He couldn't get Gratz to win the Public League Championship, but the school has since done so in 1973 under coach Lionel Hoye; 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1997 and 2001 under Bill Ellerbee; and in 2004 and 2006 under Leonard Poole.

In 1972, Chaney reached the college ranks, Cheyney State College, now Cheyney University, an HBCU in Cheyney, Chester County, southwest of Philadelphia. In 10 seasons, offering chances to kids whose only way out of Philly's ghettos seemed to be basketball, he guided the school, now in NCAA Division I, to a 232-56 record, including the NCAA Division II Championship in 1978. Surely, some people thought the school was named for him, not noticing the difference in spelling.

In 1982, he was hired at Temple University. Sitting on the area where Center City begins to fade out, and the North Philly ghetto begins, it has always been an inclusive school, and a lifelong for poor youth in the city. This has included its basketball program, a haven first for Jewish kids, then for black ones.

(This confused me, as I heard the name "Temple" and thought it had started as a Jewish school. In fact, it was founded in 1884 by Russell Conwell, a Bostonian, a lawyer, and an ordained Baptist minister. Its 1st lecture hall was in the basement of Conwell's Grace Baptist Temple, and that's where the name comes from.)

Temple's motto is "Perseverantia Vincit," Latin for "Perseverance Conquers." Chaney already knew that, and he showed it at McGonigle Hall. He became known for early-morning practices, yelling in a raspy voice when he perceived insufficient effort, his tie getting looser and looser as games went on, a fine match-up zone defense, and scheduling the Temple Owls against the toughest teams in the country. He was a firm believer in the old line of, "If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best."

In 1985, he guided them to the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season title, and also to the A-10 Tournament title. He repeated this feat in 1987, and again in 1988, and again in 1990. In 1988, he got a team led by Tim Perry and Macon Macon to the pre-NCAA Tournament Number 1 ranking. In the Tournament, they beat Lehigh, Georgetown and the University of Richmond to reach the Elite Eight, with a record of 31-1. But they were beaten by Duke in the Regional Final. Chaney swept the various National Coach of the Year awards, one of which he had already won in 1987.

Chaney became an icon in Philadelphia, and beyond. But 1988 would be the closest he ever got to a Division I National Championship. And as time went on, he began to be seen as a quirky character, an irascible old man. I saw a newspaper cartoon comparing him to the Star Wars character Yoda. (A bit taller, he was, hm?)

In 1994, Temple went 23-8, finished 2nd in the A-10, and was ranked 12th in the last national poll. By Chaney's standards, it was about average. But on February 13, they went up to Amherst, Massachusetts to play the University of Massachusetts, then coached by John Calipari, and lost 56-55.

During Calipari's postgame press conference, Chaney, 62, barged in, and accused Coach Cal, 35 and already with the kind of reputation that would get him called a "preening schmo," of "manipulating the referees." Calipari tried to respond, but Chaney wouldn't let him, yelling, "Shut up, goddammit!" He then charged the podium, and security officers stopped him before he could get close. But not before he could yell, "I'll kill you!" and, "When I see you, I'm gonna kick your ass!" and, "I'll tell my players to knock your fucking kids in the mouth!"

Calipari, a native of a small town outside Pittsburgh, stood his ground, and said, "Nothing ceases to amaze me." He has gone on to great success in the game, but also to great controversy. Chaney was suspended for 1 game over the incident, apologized, and, years later, publicly defended Calipari during one of his scandals.

Chaney would lead Temple to the A-10 regular season title in 1998, sweep the regular-season and Tournament titles in 2000, win the Tournament again in 2001, and win the regular-season title again in 2002. In 2001, meeting the eligibility requirement -- active coaches can be elected with 25 years of service -- he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But after getting Temple back to the Elite Eight in 2001, he never got them into the NCAA Tournament again. Despite 3 straight 2nd-place finishes in the league, overall, he went 18-16 in 2003, 15-14 in 2004, and 16-14 in 2005. The A-10 then went to a single division, due to changes in affiliations, and in 2006, he went 8-8, good enough for only 7th, and went 17-16 overall.

At the age of 73, he hung up his whistle. He was 741-312 for his career, including 516-253 at Temple. He had won 8 regular-season Conference Championships, and 6 Conference Tournaments. But despite making the Elite Eight in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1999 and 2001, he never made the Final Four.

He was succeeded by Fran Dunphy, who came over from fellow Big 5 school Penn. Despite a losing record in his 1st season -- something Chaney had also done at Temple, and it would be the only losing season he ever had as a coach -- he led Temple to A-10 titles in 2010 and 2012, and to the Championship of the American Athletic Conference in 2016.

In 2019, "Mr. Big 5" stepped aside, having surpassed Chaney as the all-time wins leader among Big 5 coaches, and handed the reigns to Aaron McKie, who had been his assistant, had won A-10 Player of the Year under Chaney in 1993, and had starred in Philly for the 76ers.

John Chaney died today, January 29, 2021, after a brief illness. He had just reached his 89th birthday, and leaves behind his wife Jeanne, their daughter Pamela, dozens of men whose lives received a boost thanks to his tutelage, the love of the people of Philadelphia, and the respect of basketball fans everywhere.

Update On Trip Guides

My Trip Guides, a.k.a. "How to Be a (Name of Team) Fan in (Name of City)," have been on hold since March 9, 2020, due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

There are still restrictions. With schedules for the Spring & Summer sports already released, I decided I should update you on where I will stand with them:

* Major League Baseball: I won't do them for the 2021 season. It would be different if each team made 2 roadtrips to its League opponents every season, but the schedule is unbalanced, so not all roadtrips will be available.

* Major League Soccer: I won't do those for the 2021 season, either, for the same reason.

* College football: Since it will start in late August, by which point most Americans should be vaccinated, it will depend on whether COVID restrictions are lifted by then. It is possible that I will be able to do them.

* The National Football League: Since it will start in early September, it may be possible.

* The National Hockey League: Since it will start in early October, it may be possible.

* The National Basketball Association: Since it will start in late October, it may be possible.

Hopefully, there will be no more restrictions in 2022.

*

The details of this countdown are dependent on COVID restrictions:

Days until the next Arsenal game: 1, tomorrow, at 12:30 PM New York time, home to Manchester United. This past Tuesday, they beat Hampshire team Southampton in the League, after losing to them the preceding Saturday, in the 4th Round of the FA Cup.

Days until the next game of the U.S. National Soccer Team: 2, this Sunday, January 31, at Exploria Stadium, home of Orlando City FC and the women's team Orlando Pride. 

Days until the New Jersey Devils again play a local rival: 8, a week from tomorrow night at 7:00, against the New York Rangers at the Prudential Center. They're coming off 2 straight home losses to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Days until the next North London Derby: 43, on Saturday, March 13, at 10:00 AM New York time, at the Emirates Stadium. A little over 6 weeks. The British TV networks may have the time and/or the date changed in order to get better ratings, or so they believe.

Days until the New York Yankees open the 2021 season: 62, on Thursday, 1:00 PM, home to the Toronto Blue Jays. Under 9 weeks.

Days until the next New York Red Bulls game: 64, on Saturday, April 3, opponent and location as yet unknown. MLS has only announced when the season will open.

Days until the Red Bulls again play a local rival: See the previous answer.

Days until the next Yankees series against the Boston Red Sox begins: 126, on Friday, June 4, at 7:00 PM, at Yankee Stadium II. A little over 4 months.

Days until the COVID-delayed Euro 2020 opens: 148, on Friday, June 26. Under 5 months. Games will be played all over Europe, with the Semifinals and the Final at the new Wembley Stadium in London.

Days until the COVID-delayed 2020 Olympics open in Tokyo, Japan: 175, on Friday, July 23. Under 6 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick High School football game: 217, on Friday, September 3, at 7:00 PM, home to arch-rival Old Bridge. A little over 7 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge football game: See the previous answer.

Days until the next Rutgers University football game: 218, on Saturday, September 4, at 12:00 noon, home to Temple University.

Days until the next election for Governor of New Jersey and Mayor of New York City: 277, on Tuesday, November 2. A little over 9 months.

Days until the next Rutgers-Penn State football game: 302, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 27, at 12:00 noon, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Under 10 months.

Days until the 1st Baseball Hall of Fame election for which Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will be eligible, and we will know for sure whether steroid use keeps a player out, or if it's only perception that does: 361, on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. Under 12 months.

Days until the next Winter Olympics open in Beijing, China: 371, on Friday, February 4, 2022. A little over 12 months.

Days until the next elections for Congress and for Governor of most States, including New York and Pennsylvania: 648, on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Under 2 years, or a little over 21 months.

Days until the next World Cup opens: 661, on Friday, November 21, 2022, in Doha, Qatar. Under 2 years, or under 22 months.

Days until the next Women's World Cup opens: 892, on Friday, July 10, 2023, jointly held in the neighboring nations of Australia and New Zealand. Under 2 and a half years, or a little over 29 months.

Days until the next Presidential election: 1,376, on Tuesday, November 5, 2024. Under 4 years, or a little over 45 months.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

This Is the Team That Brian Cashman Built

Today, the New York Yankees held a press conference, announcing that infielder DJ LeMahieu has been signed to a new contract, and that pitcher Corey Kluber has been signed.

Keeping DJLM -- or "LeMachine," if you prefer -- was vital. Signing Kluber appears to be a big help: He was a 2-time Cy Young Award winner with the Cleveland Indians, a 3-time All-Star.

But looks can be deceiving. Injuries limited him to only 1 inning last season, and 7 starts lasting less than 36 innings the year before that. He'll be 35 years old shortly after Opening Day.

What's more, general manager Brian Cashman refused to sign pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a new contract. After 7 seasons, including 78 wins, Tanaka has been signed by his former team in Japan. And he is 2 1/2 years younger than Kluber.

So, essentially, Cashman has traded Tanaka for Kluber. A very good, dependable starter for an older starter who was once great, but is now a big question mark. (He has not yet been assigned a uniform number, but has worn 28 for most of his career, and that number is currently available.)

Cashman also signed former Pittsburgh Pirates starter Jameson Taillon. He was 14-10 in 2018, but, like Kluber, was limited to 7 starts in 2019, totaling 37 innings. Unlike Kluber and his one inning, Taillon didn't pitch at all in 2020. He's younger, 29, so he stands a better chance of bouncing back. (He wore Number 50, currently worn by 1st base coach Reggie Willits.)

Indeed, this is the Yankees' starting rotation as it currently stands, presuming it is fully healthy, in descending order of past effectiveness: Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Domingo German and Jameson Taillon. If anybody goes down, or is ineffective, the next men up are, in order: Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga, Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Michael King.

In the 1960s, there was a rock band named Question Mark & The Mysterians. The Yankees' rotation could be called Gerrit Cole & The Question Marks.

The bullpen has Aroldis Chapman as the closer, Zack Britton as the 8th (and possibly also 7th) inning man, Luis Cessa, Ben Heller, Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske. With Chad Green and Loaisiga as "long men." Do any of these pitchers, even Chapman, fill you with confidence?

What about the lineup? The catchers are Gary Sanchez, who has a lot of power but has struggled the last 2 years, both at and behind the plate; and Kyle Higashioka, a competent fielder with some pop, but not a good hitter overall. The infield will probably be Luke Voit at 1st base, DJ LeMahieu at 2nd base, Gleyber Torres at shortstop, and Gio Urshela at 3rd base.

Torres has previously played 2nd, and is a better fielder there than at shortstop, but, you know, he's Cashman's golden boy, the man for whom he threw away Chapman (sending him to the Chicago Cubs before bringing him back as a free agent), Starlin Castro (an All-Star 2nd baseman that he sent to the Miami Marlins to get Giancarlo Stanton) and Didi Gregorius (an All-Star shortstop whom he refused to give a new contract).

LeMahieu can also play 1st and 3rd. Miguel Andujar can fill in at 3rd, possibly also at 1st. Mike Ford can fill in at 1st. And Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada, theoretically, can play anywhere.

The starting outfield is likely to be Clint Frazier in left, Aaron Hicks in center and Aaron Judge in right. Giancarlo Stanton will be the designated hitter: Frazier, who had been a terrible fielder no matter what position he played, improved tremendously last season, making Stanton a nearly full-time DH. Mike Tauchman can also play the outfield and 1st base.

The only lefthanded hitters among those are Hicks, Tauchman, Ford and Wade. In other words, presuming no injuries -- something that cannot be presumed, as the Yankees seem to have an injury crisis every year -- and no disciplinary issues, the only lefthanded batter in the starting lineup is going to be Hicks.

If Sanchez can hit for the same averages he did in 2016 (.299) and 2017 (.278), and keep up his power when he does hit the ball, there will be no weak spots in this lineup, if it's fully healthy. But 8 righthanders and only 1 lefty is not a recommended way to make out a lineup card.

Cashman has built a squad reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s Boston Red Sox squad: Heavy on righthanded sluggers aiming for the Green Monster, short on good lefthanded hitting, weak on reliable pitching, inconsistent on defense. And while either Judge or Stanton can hit the ball as far as Ted Williams, neither does so with the same frequency. And there's no clutch hero like Carl Yastrzemski. And this team only plays 9 games a season in Fenway Park.

This is the team that Brian Cashman built. If everything falls into place, it will be a threat to make the postseason, and to go far in it.

If not everything falls into place, the team as a whole will fall.

Again.

12 years for the Yankees is like 86 years for any other team.

How Long It's Been: The Dallas Cowboys Reached a Super Bowl

January 28, 1996, 25 years ago: The Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowl XXX, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17, at Sun Devil Stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Arizona.

It was their 5th win in a Super Bowl, along with 3 losses, 2 of them to the Steelers:

* Super Bowl V, 1971: Lost to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13 at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
* Super Bowl VI, 1972: Beat the Miami Dolphins, 24-3 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
* Super Bowl X, 1976: Lost to the Steelers, 21-17 at the Orange Bowl.
* Super Bowl XII, 1978: Beat the Denver Broncos, 27-10 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
* Super Bowl XIII, 1979: Lost to the Steelers, 35-31 at the Orange Bowl.
* Super Bowl XXVII, 1993: Beat the Buffalo Bills, 52-17 at the Rose Bowl in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, California.
* Super Bowl XXVIII, 1994: Beat the Bills, 30-13 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Since the establishment of the Super Bowl with the 1966 season, this was the 1st time a team had won 3 in 4 years. The Cowboys looked set to keep on excelling.

They didn't. They lost in the Divisional round the next season, missed the Playoffs in 1997, lost in the Wild Card round the next 2 years, and missed the Playoffs in 5 of the last 6.

Since winning Super Bowl XXX, they have played 14 Playoff games, and won only 4 of them.

It's been exactly 25 years since they won a Super Bowl, or played in one. They haven't even reached  an NFC Championship Game in a quarter of a century. For one of pro football's iconic franchises, that is an embarrassment.

A quarter of a century. How long has that been?

*

Barry Switzer was coaching a team led by "The Triplets": Quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and receiver Michael Irvin. Other stars included Nate Newton, Larry Allen, Mark Tuinei, Jay Novacek, Darrell "Moose" Johnston, Charles Haley, Russell Maryland, Deion Sanders, Darren Woodson, and... Leon Lett? "Not Leon Lett!"

Aikman, Irvin, Novacek, Johnston and Sanders are all now part of NFL broadcast teams. Aikman, Smith, Irvin, Allen, Haley and Sanders are now in he Pro Football Hall of Fame. Aikman, Smith, Irvin, Haley, Allen and Woodson are also in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor.

The Denver Broncos, the Los Angeles Rams (then in their St. Louis sojourn), the Cleveland Browns franchise that was in the process of becoming the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Seattle Seahawks, the Colts since moving to Indianapolis, the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles had never won a Super Bowl. The Patriots, the Browns/Ravens, the Buccaneers, the Seahawks, the Indy version of the Colts, the Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the Tennessee Titans (having just completed their next-to-last season as the Houston Oilers), the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals had never even been in one. All those facts are now untrue.

The Cowboys were playing in Texas Stadium in Irving. The Pittsburgh Steelers, whom they beat, were playing in Three Rivers Stadium. Both have moved to new stadiums, and their old ones have been demolished. Super Bowl XXX was played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. While Arizona State University still plays football there, the Cardinals have moved to the other side of the Phoenix suburbs, to Glendale, and have hosted 2 Super Bowls there.

Of the 30 teams playing in the 1995-96 NFL season, only 6 are still playing in the same stadiums: Buffalo, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Miami and New Orleans.

Early NFL legends Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson and Sid Luckman were still alive. Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were in college. Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger were in high school. Aaron Rodgers was 12 years old, Clay Matthews and Ndamukong Suh were 9, Richard Sherman was about to turn 8, Russell Wilson was 7; Cam Newton, Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck were 6; Odell Beckham Jr. and Johnny Manziel were 3; Derrick Henry was 2; Patrick Mahomes was 4 months old; and Lamar Jackson wasn't born yet.

Derek Jeter had 12 hits in his major league career, LeBron James was 11, and Sidney Crosby was 8.

Current Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was the quarterbacks coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Barry Trotz of the Islanders was the head coach of the minor-league Portland Pirates in Maine. Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks was an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. Lindy Ruff of the Devils was an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers. David Quinn of the Rangers was an assistant coach at Northeastern University in Boston.

Gerhard Struber of the Red Bulls was playing for Austria Salzburg, the team now known as Red Bull Salzburg. Ronny Deila of New York City FC was playing for Odds Ballklubb in Skein, in his native Norway.

Aaron Boone of the Yankees was in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system. Steve Nash of the Nets was playing at Santa Clara University. Joe Judge of the Giants, Robert Saleh of the Jets, Luis Rojas of the Mets were in high school. Walt Hopkins of the Liberty was 10 years old.

In winning their 3rd title in a span of 4 years, the Cowboys dethroned the San Francisco 49ers as NFL Champions. The other titleholders at that point were the New Jersey Devils, the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Rockets.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World was... well, it was Bruce Seldon according to the WBA, Frank Bruno according to the WBC, and the title was vacant according to the IBF, last held by the second coming of George Foreman. There was no current holder of the MLS Cup, as MLS was still 3 months away from beginning its 1st season.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America twice, Russia twice, Japan, Australia, Greece, Italy, China, Canada, Britain and Brazil. The World Cup has since been held in France, Japan, Korea, Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Russia.

Bill Clinton was beginning his campaign for a 2nd term as President. Conservatives were obsessing over Hillary Clinton's paper documents. Former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, their wives, and the widow of Lyndon Johnson were all still alive. George W. Bush was in his 1st term as Governor of Texas.

Barack Obama was practicing law with the Chicago firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Joe Biden was running for his 5th term in the U.S. Senate from Delaware. Kamala Harris was a Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County, California. And Donald Trump, while not screwing over anybody he could with his businesses, was still cheating on his 2nd wife, Marla Maples.

The Mayor of Dallas was Ron Kirk. Current Mayor Eric Johnson was at Harvard University. The Governor of the State of New York was George Pataki. The Mayor of the City of New York was Rudolph Giuliani. The Governor of New Jersey was Christine Todd Whitman. Andrew Cuomo was Assistant Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, and Bill de Blasio was working for him. Phil Murphy was running the European headquarters of Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, Germany.

Only 2 of the Justices on the Supreme Court then are still on it now: Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

The current holder of the Nobel Peace Prize was Joseph Rotblat, a Polish physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb, then spent the last 60 years of his life working to prevent its use. The Pope was John Paul II. The current Pope, Francis, was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and a bishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Jean Chretien, and of Britain John Major. Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne, and she still is. Blackburn Rovers were the holders of the Premier League title, and Everton of the FA Cup.

Major novels of 1996 included several political stories, in anticipation of the year's Presidential election: Absolute Power by David Baldacci, Executive Orders by Tom Clancy, and Primary Colors, a barely-veiled portrait of Bill Clinton's 1992 New Hampshire Primary campaign, whose author was originally listed as simply "Anonymous," but was later revealed to be Newsweek reporter Joe Klein.

Other big novels of the year included The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer, Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, The Runaway Jury by John Grisham, The Green Mile by Stephen King, Intensity by Dean R. Koontz, How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Jeff Shaara's Civil War story Gods and Generals, and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. (Oops, I talked about it.)

The 1st book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, was published, and gave its name to the TV series covering all the books in it: A Game of Thrones. Natalie Dormer was about to turn 14. Richard Madden, Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington were 9, and Rose Leslie was about to be 9. Jack Gleeson was 3, Sophie Turner would be born 24 days later, Maisie Williams 15 months later, and Dean-Charles Chapman 20 months later. The Harry Potter books had yet to be published. Daniel Radcliffe was 6, and Emma Watson was 5.

January 1996 was not a good month for movies: It saw the release of Dunston Checks In, Bio-Dome, From Dusk till Dawn, and the parody of gangsta rap movies Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.

Television saw the debuts of 3rd Rock from the Sun on NBC, Moesha on UPN, and the much-mocked "glow puck" on Fox Sports' hockey broadcasts. Aside from Robert Kardashian Sr., part of O.J. Simpson's recent defense team, none of the Kardashians were famous yet: Kourtney was 16, Kim was 15, Khloe was 11, Rob was 8, Kendall Jenner was 3 months old, and Kylie Jenner wasn't born yet.

Dean Cain was playing Superman on TV. George Clooney had been cast as Batman in a movie. Lynda Carter was still the last live-action Wonder Woman. Nicholas Hammond was still the last live-action Spider-Man. Pierce Brosnan was playing James Bond, and Paul McGann would soon star in a one-shot Doctor Who.

No one had yet heard of Ash Ketchum, Austin Powers, Carrie Bradshaw, Tony Soprano, Jed Bartlet, Robert Langdon, Master Chief, Jack Bauer, Omar Little, Rick Grimes, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Michael Bluth, Lisbeth Salander, Bella Swan, Michael Scott, Don Draper, Katniss Everdeen, Walter White, Jax Teller, Richard Castle, Leslie Knope or Sarah Manning.

Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men had the Number 1 song in America with "One Sweet Day." Lisa Marie Presley filed for divorce from Michael Jackson, although they remained friends for the rest of his life.

Jamaican authorities, mistaking it for that of a drug trafficker, opened fire on a plane carrying U2 singer Bono and Jimmy Buffett. It landed safely, with no injuries. Jonathan Larson died at age 35 of an undetected heart defect, just 1 day before his musical Rent was to have its 1st public performance, which went forward anyway. Kid Rock released his debut album, Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp. (He sure looked stoned on the cover.)

Stana Katic, Katie Holmes, Heath Ledger, Pink, Michelle Williams (both of them), Ben Savage, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Natalie Portman, Chris Evans, Beyonce Knowles, Britney Spears, Sienna Miller, Kate Middleton, Hayley Atwell and Kirsten Dunst were in high school. Matt Smith, Anne Hathaway and Andrew Garfield were in junior high.

Lady Gaga and Drake were 9 years old, Kevin Jonas was 8, Rihanna and Emma Stone were 7, Joe Jonas was 6, Sarah Hyland was 5, Louis Tomlinson was 4; Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Zayn Malik were 3; Ariana Grande, Liam Payne and Niall Horan were 2, and Harry Styles and Justin Bieber were about to turn 2; and Abigail Breslin, Ariel Winter, Rico Rodriguez and Nolan Gould weren't born yet.

Inflation was such that what $1.00 bought then, $1.65 would buy now. A U.S. postage stamp was 32 cents, and a New York Subway token -- or a single ride on the newly-developed MetroCard -- was $1.50. Dallas doesn't have a subway, but since 1996, it has developed a light rail system. The average price of a gallon of gas was $1.32, a cup of coffee $1.79, a McDonald's meal (Big Mac, fries and shake) $4.11, a movie ticket $4.42, a new car $13,600, and a new house $118,200. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the preceding Friday at 5271.75.

The first tablet computer was about to be released. But, as yet, there was no Wikipedia, no iPod, no Skype, no MySpace, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter, no Tumblr, no iPhone, no Pinterest, no Instagram, no iPad, and no Vine. Motorola had just introduced the Motorola StarTAC Wearable Cellular Telephone, the world's smallest and lightest mobile phone to date. Finally, instead of clipping a mobile phone onto your belt, you could fit on in your pocket. But you still couldn't access the fledgling Internet from your phones. The original Sony PlayStation was the leading home video game system of the time. There were birth control pills, but no Viagra.

At the beginning of 1996, 30 inches of snow were dumped on the Northeast, a storm that killed over 150 people. Fighting broke out between Russian soldiers and rebel fighters in Chechnya. Coup took place in the African nations of Sierra Leone and Niger. Haiti, on the other hand, has its 1st-ever peaceful transfer of power. And Amber Hagerman, age 9, was murdered in Arlington, Texas, not far from where the Texas Rangers played and where the Cowboys would move in 2009; she became the namesake of the AMBER Alert system.

Francois Mitterand, and Gene Kelly, and Superman creator Jerry Siegel died. Sasha Pieterse, and Sophie Turner, and Leroy Sané were born.

January 28, 1996. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17 at Sun Devil Stadium, to win Super Bowl XXX, their 3rd World Championship in 4 years, and the 5th World Championship in their history.

They have never even been to another Super Bowl. In the 25 years since, the Dallas Mavericks have been to 2 NBA Finals, winning 1; the Dallas Stars have been to 3 Stanley Cup Finals, winning 1; the Dallas Burn have been founded, changed their name to FC Dallas, moved from the Cotton Bowl to a soccer-specific stadium in suburban Frisco, won 2 U.S. Open Cups, and reached an MLS Cup Final; and the Texas Rangers have won 2 Pennants, although they haven't won a World Series, but at least they've been to their sport's finals.

AT&T Stadium, the new Arlington home of the Cowboys, hosted Super Bowl XLV on February 6, 2011, and many Cowboys fans thought that they would become the 1st team ever to play a Super Bowl on its own field. It didn't happen.

Since Super Bowl XXX, the title has been won by the New England Patriots 6 times, the Denver Broncos 3 times, the Green Bay Packers twice (including the one in Arlington), the Baltimore Ravens twice, the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, the New York Giants twice, and once each by the Rams (then in St. Louis), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Indianapolis Colts, the New Orleans Saints, the Seattle Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs.

But for 25 years, the Cowboys haven't even been to one.

HOW 'BOUT DEM COWBOYS? DALLAS SUCKS!

Monday, January 25, 2021

George Armstrong, 1930-2021

Yes, that is a color photograph of a Toronto Maple Leafs Captain holding the Stanley Cup. No, it is not photoshopped. Nor is it colorized.

It's been 54 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs have won a Stanley Cup, or even reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Still, as long as some members of their 1960s dynasty were still alive, it still seemed accessible.

But of the 11 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame on that dynasty team, 9 were still alive when the 50th Anniversary celebrations began in the Spring of 2012 -- and the 2 that had died had both died within a few years of that last Cup. Now, only 3 are left.

George Edward Armstrong was born on July 6, 1930 in Skead, Ontario, now a part of Greater Sudbury. His father was a Canadian of Irish descent. His mother was a member of the Ojibwe tribe of indigenous North Americans. Long called "Indians," America now tends to use the term "Native Americans," while Canadians prefer "First Nations."

The Ojibwe are also known as the Chippewa. Albert Bender, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics early in the 20th Century, was also an Oibwe, and was, like so many other Native Americans, known as "Chief." Allie Reynolds, a Yankee pitcher of the late 1940s and early '50s, was a member of the Creek nation, and was called "Superchief."

George Armstrong would also be called "Chief." And Johnny Bucyk, who would be Captain of the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup winners of 1970 and 1972, would be nicknamed "Chief" by a Boston cartoonist who thought he looked like a Native, when he was actually of Ukrainian descent.

Also part of Greater Sudbury was Falconbridge, and that's where George Armstrong grew up. His father worked in the nickel mines, and Skead would eventually have its name changed to Nickel Centre. Like so many other kids who seemed destined for the mines, including the Yankees' Mickey Mantle, George turned to sports as a way out. At age 6, he came down with spinal meningitis, which nearly derailed his chance.

But he survived, and played hockey at Sudbury High School, with Miles "Tim" Horton and Mirl "Red" McCarthy, both of whom would eventually become his NHL teammates. In 1947, he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and dropped out of school. He played with their top junior team, the Toronto Marlboros, in 1948-49. (The current Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies, is named for them.) He was called up to the Leafs on December 3, 1949, and played in 2 games before being returned to the Marlboros, where he was named their Captain.

Frank "King" Clancy had been a Hall of Fame defenseman for the Leafs. In 1952, he was their assistant general manager. His assessment of Armstrong: "This kid's got everything. He has size, speed, and he can shoot 'em into the net better that any hockey player I've known in a long time. I'll be surprised if he doesn't become a superstar."

*

Clancy would not be surprised. Turning professional, he played for the Leafs' highest minor-league team, the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League, and was leading the AHL in scoring in 1951-52 before being called up. His 1st goal for the Leafs was the 1st goal ever scored by an NHL player of Native heritage. He never played in the minors again, although he missed the start of the 1952-53 season and a quarter of the 1956-57 season with injuries.

The Leafs had won 6 Cups in 10 years from 1942 to 1951, but that team had gotten old and been broken up. Now, with the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings dominating the game -- aside from the Leafs' '51 win, those 2 teams would win every Cup from 1950 to 1960 -- the Leafs struggled: They missed the Playoffs completely in 1953, '57 and '58; and lost to the Wings in the Semifinals in 1952, '54, '55 and '56.

In 1958, George "Punch" Imlach, who had won 2 Quebec Senior Hockey League titles with the Quebec Aces, having coached future Canadiens stars Jean Béliveau and Jacques Plante, was named general manager of the Leafs, and installed himself as head coach. He began to build a new team, with veterans Armstrong, Horton, Allan Stanley, Bobby Baun, Dave Keon, and goaltender Johnny Bower.

By now Captain, "Army" took this Leafs team to the Finals in 1959, beating the Boston Bruins in the Semifinals before losing to the Canadiens. In 1960, they beat the Red Wings in the Playoffs, something they hadn't done in 11 years, before losing another Finals to the Canadiens, who completed a run of 5 straight Cups. In 1961, the Canadiens fell into a transition period, but the Leafs couldn't take advantage, losing to the Wings in the Semifinals.

But in 1961-62, it all came together. They picked up Wings defenseman Leonard "Red" Kelly, and moved him to center. And they traded for Eddie Litzenberger, who had Captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the previous season's Cup, beating the Wings in the Finals.

Now, they had Bower in goal; Horton, Baun, Stanley, Carl Brewer, Larry Hillman, and a young man named Al Arbour on defense; Litzenberger, Dick Duff, Bert Olmstead, Brian Conacher, Eddie Shack and Bob Nevin on the wings; and Armstrong, Kelly, Ron Stewart, Dave Keon, Billy Harris, Bob Pulford and Frank Mahovlich as centers. Mahovlich became one of the defining players of his generation, but, with Imlach and Armstrong leading the way, the Leafs became a true team effort.

In 1962, the Leafs finished 2nd overall in the NHL, beat the New York Rangers in the Semifinals, and dethroned the Blackhawks in the Finals, taking their 1st Stanley Cup in 11 years. There were no holdovers from the 1951 Playoffs, but Armstrong and Horton had been there for nearly all of the drought, and appreciated it the most.

In 1963, the Leafs finished 1st overall in the NHL, beat the Canadiens in the Playoffs (something they hadn't done since 1951), and beat the Wings in the Finals. In 1964, they finished 3rd, and again beat the Canadiens in the Semis and the Wings in the Finals, making it 3 straight Cups.

All 3 times, NHL President Clarence Campbell handed the Cup to Armstrong, as Captain. Conn Smythe, involved with the Leafs from 1927 until his death in 1980, called Armstrong "the best Captain, as a Captain, the Leafs have ever had."

As late as 1956, the all-time Stanley Cup count had been Maple Leafs 9, Canadiens 8. After 1960, it was Canadiens 12, Maple Leafs 9. After 1964, it was a 12-12 tie. But the Canadiens won in 1965 and '66, taking the all-time lead. They have never relinquished it. Both times, they beat the Leafs in the Semifinals to get there.

For the 1966-67 season, the Leafs were seen as an aging team whose time had passed. But Imlach stuck by his veterans, and added 2, both members of the Detroit dynasty of the early 1950s: Goaltender Terry Sawhcuk, who began to alternate with Bower; and defenseman Marcel Pronovost. They finished 3rd in the last "Original Six" season, before the "Great Expansion," and eliminated the Blackhawks in 6 games in the Semifinal.

It was Canada's Centennial Year, and the NHL's 2 Canadian-based teams were in the Stanley Cup Final. It also was the 50th NHL Final. Of those 50, the Leafs were now in 22, while the Canadiens were in 23 -- and this would be their 11th Playoff series against each other, all rounds combined. The Habs won Game 1 at the Montreal Forum, 6-2. But the Leafs took Game 2 at the Forum, 3-0.

They won Game 3 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, 3-2, on a goal by Pulford in double overtime. But Bower was injured before Game 4, and Sawchuk was in goal the rest of the way. The Habs took home-ice advantage back with their own 6-2 road victory. The Leafs took it back again in Game 5, 4-1.

That set up Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens, on May 2, 1967. The game was scoreless until 6:25 into the 2nd period, when Ron Ellis scored for the Leafs. Jim Pappin added another at the end of the period. Dick Duff, a former Leaf, scored for Montreal early in the 3rd. So the Leafs hung on to a 2-1 lead.

With a minute left, Canadiens coach Hector "Toe" Blake pulled goaltender Lorne "Gump" Worsley for an extra attacker. Imlach, known as "Elmer Fudd," "the Mad Hatter" and "the Old Bald Muledriver" behind his back, pulled a move that fans of American football coach George Allen would have appreciated: He put an "Over-the-Hill Gang" onto the ice. As the first and greatest of all hockey broadcasters, Foster Hewitt, called it over CBC, "Imlach is making his stand with an all-veteran lineup: Stanley, Horton, Kelly, Pulford and Armstrong. Sawchuk, of course, is in goal."

Stanley won the faceoff from Béliveau. He passed to Kelly, who passed to Pulford, who passed to Armstrong. With 47 seconds left in regulation, at the center red line, Armstrong fired at the empty Montreal net. 3-1 Toronto. All over. For the 4th time in 7 years, and the 13th time overall, the Toronto Maple Leafs were World Champions.
As Chris Cuthbert of Canadian network Sportsnet pointed out, Armstrong was the only player to register a point -- a goal or an assist -- in the clinching games of all 4 Cup wins.

*

Remember how Brett Favre kept retiring after every season, and then kept un-retiring? George Armstrong also did this. He probably did it the 1st time as insurance against being made available for the 1967 Expansion Draft. But he kept going, through the 1970-71 season, playing 21 seasons over 4 different decades, finishing his career with 296 goals and 417 assists, totaling 713 points. He added 26 goals and 34 assists in the Playoffs, keeping in mind that there were only 2 possible rounds for most of his career.

He appeared in 7 NHL All-Star Games, although that becomes less impressive when you remember that, from its establishment in 1947 until his last in 1968, it was always the defending Champions against an All-Star Team made up from players from all of the NHL's other teams. But he was chosen for it in 1956, 1957 and 1959, when the Leafs had not yet won the Cup with him on the roster.

In 1970-71, George's last season as an NHL player, London soccer team Arsenal won England's Football League and its in-season tournament, the FA Cup, winning "The Double." They also had a player named George Armstrong, a winger with short legs, big sideburns, and boundless energy, who was every bit as valuable to his team as the Leafs' Chief was to them. He was from County Durham, in the North-East of England. As far as I can tell, the two men were not related, and never met each other. The footballer played from 1961 to 1977, went into coaching, and died in 2000.

By the time George Armstrong the hockey player retired, the Leafs had already broken up their champions, including having let Sawchuk go in the expansion draft. He was taken by the Los Angeles Kings, who hired the newly-retired Kelly to become their 1st head coach. By 1970, Sawchuk was a Ranger, and died in 1970 while still an active player, from liver failure. Horton also became a Ranger, and a Buffalo Sabre, and was still playing at age 44 in 1974, when he was killed in a car crash.

Upon his retirement, the Leafs named Armstrong a scout. In 1972, he was appointed head coach of the Marlboros, and led them to the championship of Canadian junior hockey, the Memorial Cup, in 1973 and 1975. In 1977, Kelly was the Leafs' head coach, but was fired, and Armstrong was offered the post. But the organization, now dominated by team owner Harold Ballard, was in chaos, and he turned the offer down. The resulting bad blood led him to resign as Marlboros coach, and he took a scouting job with the Quebec Nordiques.

It took until 1988 for Armstrong to rejoin the Leaf organization, and was named head coach and assistant general manager. But it didn't work out, as he won only 17 of 47 games, and missed the Playoffs. After the season, he returned to a scout-only role.

George was involved in the Special Olympics, and, as you might guess, charities related to indigenous tribes. He kept his home in Toronto, where he and his wife Betty had 4 children: Sons Brian, Fred and Lorne, and daughter Betty-Ann. His granddaughter, Kalley, captained the women's hockey team at Harvard University. His nephew, Dale McCourt, played 7 seasons in the NHL, the last, 1983-84, with the Leafs.

In 1975, George was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was named to the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. In 2013, Sportsnet ranked him 14th on their list of the 30 Greatest Maple Leafs. Of his 1960s teammates, Dave Keon was ranked 1st, Johnny Bower 5th, Frank Mahovlich 6th, Tim Horton 7th, Red Kelly 16th, Allan Stanley 20th, and Ron Ellis 25th. A 2017 team Centennial poll of Leafs fans ranked him 12th.
Bower and Armstrong

In 1998, the Leafs made Number 10 an "Honoured Number," and raised banners honoring him and previous wearer Syl Apps to the rafters at Maple Leaf Gardens. In 2016, as part of the team's 100th Anniversary celebrations, all of their Honoured Numbers were made retired numbers, and the banners showing Armstrong and Apps, Number 10s, were raised to the rafters at Scotiabank Arena.
By then, the celebrations for the 50th Anniversaries of the 1960s Cups were nearing their conclusion. But the Leafs had not been back to the Stanley Cup Finals since. They had only gotten back to the NHL's last 4 teams in 1978, 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002.

And the players from that team began to fall victim to the ravages of old age. Allan Stanley died in 2013, Marcel Pronovost in 2015, Johnny Bower in 2017, Red Kelly in 2019, and Eddie Shack in 2020.

George Armstrong had been suffering from heart trouble, and it took his life yesterday, January 24, 2021, at the age of 90.

* Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Canadiens fan born after Armstrong's retirement, but paying proper tribute: "If you know hockey, you know George Armstrong. He played 21 seasons with the Leafs, won four Stanley Cups, and inspired many as one of the first players of Indigenous descent to play in the NHL. He was a true hockey legend, and he’ll be missed. Rest in peace, Chief."

* Dave Keon: "He will be missed. A great teammate, a great captain, a great teacher. He was a funny guy to be around, the life of the party. He was the last one of us to carry the Cup off the ice and the last to score a goal in a Cup final."

* Doug Gilmour, Leafs Hall-of-Famer: "Thank you George for paving the way and showing what a Captain should be. You were a great man and will never be forgotten. RIP Chief"

* Auston Matthews, current Leafs star: "George was an incredible ambassador for the City of Toronto and the Maple Leafs. He paved the way for the guys like us who are trying to accomplish something big here."

* Nick Foligno, Captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, son of former Buffalo Sabres All-Star Mike Foligno, Armstrong's fellow Sudbury native, who also played for the Leafs, and had once been traded for Dale McCourt: "My dad often spoke of George Armstrong and what he meant to hockey in #Sudbury. He would talk about how kind and humble he was but when he stepped on the ice he took control and led by example! Thanks for inspiring so many like my Dad, Mr. Armstrong. "

* John Derringer, morning host at CILQ-FM in Toronto, a.k.a. Q107: "George Armstrong displayed as much class and dignity as anyone who ever wore the blue and white or represented the Leafs organization. Head held high. Always. RIP."

With his death, there are now:

* 6 surviving players from the 1962 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs: Larry Hillman, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Dick Duff and John MacMillan.

* 6 surviving players from the 1963 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs: The same 6.

* 7 surviving players from the 1964 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs: Hillman, Mahovlich, Keon, Baun, Duff, Don McKenney and Jim Pappin.

* And 10 surviving players from the 1964 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs: Hillman, Mahovlich, Keon, Baun, Pappin, Pete Stemkowski, Mike "Shakey" Walton, Brian Conacher, Ron Ellis, and Larry Jeffrey.

"Hockey is a great game, and I love it," George Armstrong said a few years ago. "I am part of a fading generation that you will never have again. Every one of us is one of a kind, that will never be repeated. To all of my friends and acquaintances, thank you for your advice and direction, that helped make me who I am today: A very, very happy person."

And so was every hockey fan who watched him.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

Just when we thought that 2021 would let us have nice things...

Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. His parents, Herbert and Estella, could not afford baseball equipment, so he used sticks as bats, and bottle caps as balls. He attended Central High School, but it did not have a baseball team. He transferred to Allen Institute, but they didn't have one, either. So he signed with a semipro team, the Mobile Black Bears.

His timing was right: He was 13 years old when Jackie Robinson reintegrated what we would now call Major League Baseball, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he was 15, he got a tryout with the Dodgers, but did not get a pro contract. He remained with the Black Bears, earning $3.00 per game.

Like Mickey Mantle, he began his professional career as a shortstop, but his fielding was such that he was switched to the outfield. In between, he was also tried at 2nd base. In 1952, he was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, earning $200 a month.

Despite growing up in segregated Alabama, he later said that he didn't experience real racism until he was played for the Clowns against the Homestead Grays in Washington, D.C. He was 18 years old:

We had breakfast while we were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we finished eating. What a horrible sound.

Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they'd have washed them. 

He was soon noticed by the New York Giants, who already had former Negro League stars Willie Mays and Monte Irvin; and the Boston Braves, who had integrated with 1948 National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe.

"I had the Giants' contract in my hand," Aaron would later say, "but the Braves offered $50 a month more. That's the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates: Fifty dollars." On such hinge moments does the history of a sport sometimes hang in the balance. On June 12, 1952, the Braves paid the Clowns $10,000 for his contract.

He spent the rest of the 1952 season with the Eau Claire Bears in the Class C Northern League -- roughly Class A ball by today's standards. Even in a Northern State like Wisconsin, he faced racism, and he wrote to his older brother, Herbert Aaron Jr., about it. Herbert wrote back, telling him not to quit, that the opportunity was too good to give up. Herbert was right: Henry (it would be a few years before he was commonly called "Hank") batted .336 and was named the league's Rookie of the Year.

If the Braves had hung on in Boston for just a little longer, they would have had a team with Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, Billy Bruton and Wes Covington. They might have done big things in Boston. They might have convinced Tom Yawkey, who had no real ties to Boston, to move the Red Sox to another city, making the Braves, who had been the most successful American sports franchise of the 19th Century, the MLB that survived in the Hub City.

And, if the Braves had, in the mid-to-late 1950s or early 1960s, built a new ballpark to replace Braves Field, it might have been friendly to hitters, and Aaron might have notched his most notable achievement in 1973, instead of everyone waiting around for an additional off-season for him to do it.

But none of that happened. For the 1953 season, the Braves moved to Milwaukee, where they had their top farm team, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Also that season, they assigned the 19-year-old Henry Aaron to the Jacksonville Tars of the Class A South Atlantic League, a.k.a. the Sally League. ("Tar" is not a racist reference: It is an old name for a sailor. A team in Norfolk, Virginia was also named the Tars.)

Jacksonville is in northeastern Florida, on the State Line with Georgia. This is not Miami, not South Florida, not the haven for elderly Jews, Italians and Cubans. This is the eastern edge of the Florida Panhandle, the "Redneck Riviera." This is home to "Florida Man." And, even today, this is a racist place.

The 1953 Tars would be Florida's 1st racially-integrated minor-league baseball team. Their manager was Ben Geraghty, a native of Jersey City, and he would take his team into restaurant after restaurant until he find one that would serve them. Aaron would call Geraghty the greatest manager who ever lived. Sadly, he was in poor health, and died in 1963, only 51.

In that 1953 season, Aaron survived the torrents of bigotry, leading the SAL in batting average (.362), runs, hits, doubles, runs batted in and total bases -- everything, a sportswriter said, except hotel accommodations. He won the League's Most Valuable Player award, and the Tars won the Pennant.

That year, Henry also met Barbara Lucas. They married after the season, and had 5 children: Sons Gary, Lary and Hank Jr., and daughters Dorinda and Gaie. They split up in 1971. In 1973, in the off-season when he was in the eye of the storm, he married an early female sportswriter, Billye Williams, and they had a daughter named Ceci.

*

Invited to Spring Training in 1954, Braves manager Charlie Grimm had a tough choice to make. Henry was hitting so well that it looked like he should make the major league team, but he wasn't fielding like a major leaguer. Would he make the team as a 2nd baseman? Would he make it as an outfielder? Would he not make it at all?

On March 13, Bobby Thomson, the 1951 New York Giant hero who was a recent acquisition by the Braves, and seemed set to be their starting left fielder, broke his ankle in a preseason exhibition game. That took the decision out of Grimm's hands: Henry Aaron would be the Braves' starting left fielder.

On April 13, 1954, he made his major league debut, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Wearing Number 5, he played left field and batted 5th. In the 1st inning, batting against Bud Podbelian, he popped up to shortstop Roy McMillan, who then turned an inning-ending double play. Podbelian had to leave the game, and was replaced by Joe Nuxhall. In the 3rd inning, he grounded to 3rd base. In the 4th, he popped up to 2nd. In the 7th, and again in the 8th, he flew out to right. He went 0-for-5, and the Braves lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 9-8. Hank was the last living man who had played in that game.

Two days later, at Milwaukee County Stadium, he got his 1st major league hit, a double off Vic Raschi, a former Yankee ace now pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals. On April 23, at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, again off Raschi, he hit his 1st major league home run.

Just 20 years old, he would bat .280, with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs, despite breaking his own ankle on September 5 to end his season. He finished 4th in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Wally Moon of the Cardinals, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and his Braves teammate Gene Conley.

For the 1955 season, he switched to Number 44, and was moved to right field. Don Davidson, the Braves' public relations director, began listing him as "Hank" in official releases. From then on, "Henry" and "Hank" would be used interchangeably. He even had competing nicknames: "Bad Henry" (being bad for pitchers to face) and "Hammerin' Hank" (a name previously given to Detroit Tigers Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg).

In 1955, he batted .300 for the 1st time, .314, and led the NL with 37 doubles. He made his 1st All-Star Game, on his home field in Milwaukee. (Stan Musial won it for the NL with a home run in the 12th inning, and Conley ended up as the winning pitcher.) In 1956, he won his 1st batting title with a .328 average, and also led the NL in hits (an even 200, his 1st time getting that many), doubles and total bases. The Braves finished just 1 game behind the Brooklyn Dodgers for the Pennant.

In 1957, the Braves won their 1st Pennant since 1914, when they were in Boston. They clinched on September 23, with Aaron hitting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th, off Billy Muffett of the Cardinals. Aaron was also named the NL's Most Valuable Player. It would be his only MVP award.

They faced the Yankees in the World Series. Hank later said that Yankee Stadium intimidated them, but that the Yankees did not. He was happy to pose with Mantle for the newspapers and the newsreels. But when he came up to bat, catcher Yogi Berra, who enjoyed talking to hitters in the hopes of unsettling him, told Hank he was holding the bat with the trademark facing the pitcher, which makes it easier to break the bat. "Hank said, Didn't come up here to read. Came up here to hit."
The Braves won the Series in 7 games, clinching at Yankee Stadium. They won the Pennant again in 1958, but lost the Series to the Yankees. In 1959, Hank won another batting title, but the Braves finished in a tie for the Pennant with the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles, and the Dodgers won the subsequent Playoff. As it turned out, that would be the closest Hank would get to another World Series.

The Gold Glove Award for fielding excellence was first given in 1958, and Hank won it for National League right fielders in each of its 1st 3 seasons. He would never win another, through no fault of his own, as Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente would dominate that award.

In the Winter of 1960, Hank appeared on the TV show Home Run Derby. He was the show's most successful player, winning 6 games, beating, in succession, Ken Boyer of the Cardinals, Jim Lemon of the Washington Senators, his Braves teammate Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers, Duke Snider of the Dodgers and Bob Allison of the Senators, before losing to Wally Post, the Reds slugger then with the Philadelphia Phillies. With the show's prizes, including bonuses for consecutive homers, he won $13,500. He had been paid $35,000 the season before.

By this point, he was already regarded as one of the best all-around players in the game, along with Mantle and Mays. Most observers, including Home Run Derby host Mark Scott, took note of how he was then a bit skinny, but had "quick wrists." At that point, if you had told longtime baseball people that he would end up with over 3,000 hits, they probably would have believed it. If you had told them he would hit 500 home runs, they might have believed that.

But if you had told them that Henry Aaron would be the man to break Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs, that would have never occurred to them. Most people thought that, if it ever happened, it would be either Mantle or Mays who did it.

Former Giants pitcher Sal Maglie, known for his great curveball, was then in his early days as a pitching coach. He recommended throwing Hank low curves: "He's going to swing, and he'll go after almost anything. And he'll hit almost anything, so you have to be careful."

Before a game with the Braves, the Giants were going over the opposing hitters, trying to figure out how to pitch to them. When Aaron was mentioned, there was an unsteady silence, until somebody said, "Make sure there's no one on when he hits it out."

"The pitcher has got only a ball," Hank himself said. "I’ve got a bat. So the percentage in weapons is in my favor, and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting."

*

Also in the Winter of 1960, he campaigned for Senator John F. Kennedy in the Wisconsin Primary. So did Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi. Lombardi was born and raised Catholic, while Aaron and his wife Barbara had recently converted.

On June 24, JFK wrote him a letter, saying, "I hope to see you push that average up over the .300 mark now that the hot weather is here." (Maybe if the Braves had stayed in Kennedy's native Boston, they would have been closer friends. But without being in Milwaukee, maybe Hank wouldn't have campaigned in that Wisconsin Primary, and Kennedy wouldn't have been nominated.)

On June 18, 1962, against the Mets, Hank hit a home run into the center field bleachers at the Polo Grounds. He became the 3rd and last player to do it. Lou Brock had done it just the day before, and his Braves teammate Adcock had done it in 1953.

The Braves remained in contention in the early 1960s, but didn't win another Pennant. The novelty of Milwaukee being in the major leagues began to wear off. And the arrival of the Minnesota Twins in 1961 took the States of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and even westernmost Wisconsin, out of what would now be called the Braves' "market." Attendance dropped.

This, despite the Braves having Hank, who led the NL in doubles and total bases in 1961; slugging percentage, runs scored, total bases, homers and RBIs in 1963; and doubles again in 1965. That would be their last season in Milwaukee: Team owner Bill Bartholomay moved them to Atlanta.

With the Houston Astros representing Texas in the major leagues, the Braves would be a regional team for the rest of the South. While Charlotte, Nashville and New Orleans now have NFL teams; Charlotte, Memphis and New Orleans have NBA teams; and Raleigh and Nashville have NHL teams, Atlanta remains the only Southern city, outside of Texas and Florida, to have an MLB team.

Mayor William Hartsfield, knowing the reputation that Birmingham, Alabama was getting outside the South, knew he had to grow Atlanta by appealing to the North. He called it "The City Too Busy to Hate," brought in major companies to establish new headquarters there, built the airport that now bears his name, and built Atlanta Stadium in 1965, renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1975. In its 1st year, it hosted the Beatles. The following year, it became home to the Braves and an NFL expansion team, the Atlanta Falcons.

But Spahn had been traded, and 1966 was the last season with the Braves for Mathews, leaving Aaron, a black man, as the biggest star on the South's team. This could have been a problem, and may have held down the Braves' attendance there.

As teammates from 1954 to 1966, Aaron and Mathews combined for 863 home runs. That remains an all-time record for teammates. (Mathews would close his career with 512 home runs.) Hank's brother Tommie Aaron would also play for the Braves on and off from 1962 (in Milwaukee) to 1971 (in Atlanta). He hit just 13 homers in his career, but it was enough to make the Aaron's the all-time home-run-hitting brother combination.

Hank led the NL in homers and RBIs again in 1966. He led it in homers, slugging, runs and total bases in 1967. Moving from Milwaukee County Stadium to Atlanta Stadium helped his hitting: Atlanta had the highest elevation of any major league city until Denver got the Colorado Rockies in 1993, and the ball flew out of the stadium. It became known as "The Launching Pad."

The greatest pitcher of all time? Some people say it was Sandy Koufax. The greatest hitter Koufax ever faced? He said it was Hank Aaron. Against Koufax, he batted .372 with 7 home runs. In fact, Hank hit 72 home runs off pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Next-best is Mays with 62.

He played in several notable games: Koufax's major league debut, on June 24, 1955, an 8-2 Braves win over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field; the game where Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings, and then lost to the Braves in the 13th inning, 1-0, at County Stadium; Joe Torre's 1st game, on September 25, 1960, a 4-2 Braves win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field; the end of the Phillies' 23-game losing streak, a 20th Century record, on August 20, 1961, a 7-4 win over the Braves at County Stadium; the 16-inning scoreless duel between Spahn and Juan Marichal, which the Giants won 1-0, on a Mays homer, on July 2, 1963 at Candlestick Park; Yogi Berra's last game, on May 9, 1965, a 5-4 Mets win over the Braves at County Stadium; Nolan Ryan's 1st game, on September 11, 1966, an 8-3 win over the Mets at Shea Stadium; and the doubleheader in which the San Diego Padres' Nate Colbert hit 5 home runs, on August 1, 1972, which the Padres swept from the Braves, 9-0 and 11-7.

*

On July 14, 1968, at Atlanta Stadium, against Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants, Hank hit the 500th home run of his career. He was only the 8th player to reach that milestone, following Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mays, Mantle, and Mathews.

He was only 34 years old, showed no sign of slowing down, and was playing in a great hitter's park. Mantle was succumbing to his injuries, and would retire just before the next season, with 536 home runs. Mays had surpassed Mantle, and had also surpassed Ott (511) to become the NL's all-time home run leader. He had surpassed Williams (521) and Foxx (534). With Mantle having fallen away, the consensus was that, if any player would surpass Ruth's all-time record of 714, it was going to be Mays. Suddenly, baseball fans had to reckon with the possibility that it could be Aaron. He ended the season with 510.

And people had hardly noticed until then. I've called LL Cool J "the Hank Aaron of Rap": He's not the most-talked-about rapper of all time, but he's done it so well for longer than just about anybody, so people just don't realize how good he's been.

In 1969, the Divisional Play Era began. The Braves and the Reds were put into the NL's Western Division, and the Cubs and the Cardinals into the Eastern Division, despite Atlanta and Cincinnati being further east than Chicago and St. Louis. The Braves won the Division, as Hank matched his uniform number with 44 home runs in a season for the 4th time, including his 537th, to pass Mantle; and again led the NL in total bases. But the Braves were swept by the New York Mets in the 1st-ever NL Championship Series. It would be Hank's last postseason appearance. He now had 554 home runs.

On May 17, 1970, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, off Wayne Simpson, he singled home Félix Millán. It was his 3,000th career hit. It made him the 1st player to reach both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, beating Mays to the dual distinction by 2 months. Also in that game, he hit a home run, and singled and scored the winning run in the 10th inning. He finished the season with 592 home runs.

In 1971, Hank tied Mathews' franchise record with 47 home runs, including the 600th of his career, on April 27, off Gaylord Perry of the Giants at Atlanta Stadium. He finished the season with 641. It wasn't enough to lead the NL, as Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates hit 48. But it was a career high: For all the homers he hit, he never hit 50 in a season. And he only shared the team record, until Andruw Jones hit 51 in 2005.

In 1972, Mathews was named the Braves' manager, and the team switched to a weird new uniform, with a lower-case A on their caps and the blue and red cornstalks on the sleeves. (It was the 1970s.) Hank surpassed Musial's record of 6,134 total bases, joined Ruth as the only players with 2,000 career RBIs, and, on June 11, hit the 649th home run of his career, surpassing Mays for 2nd all-time. Mays would retire the next season, with 660.

Ernie Harwell, broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers, but a Georgia native who had worked for an Atlanta newspaper and got his broadcasting start with the city's former minor-league team, the Atlanta Crackers, was also a published songwriter, and wrote "Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry."

When the 1972 season ended, Henry, or Hank (he answered to both), had 673. He would turn 39 in the off-season, but, except for his ankle injury as a rookie, he had never been seriously hurt. It was no longer a question of, "Can he do it?" Only of, "When?" and "Will anything short of a career-ending injury stop him?"

In 1973, it looked like no pitcher could stop him. He just kept slugging away. As America dealt with the fallout from the end of its role in the Vietnam War, and the drip-drip-drip of revelations of the Watergate scandal then engulfing President Richard Nixon, the chase for the record was a welcome distraction for baseball fans.

On June 9, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a stunning 31 lengths, becoming the 1st horse in 25 years to win thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. Once the excitement from that began to fade, there was nothing for a sports fan whose team wasn't in the Pennant race to watch other than Hank Aaron getting to 680, 685, 690... On July 21, at Atlanta Stadium against Ken Brett of the Phillies (whose brother George would soon make his major league debut for the Kansas City Royals), Hank tallied Number 700.

The attention mounted. Soon, he was getting more mail than anybody in America, except Nixon himself. But, as with Nixon, some of it was hate mail. And some of it was terribly racist in nature. I won't quote any of it here. But at a time when civil rights legislation was an established fact of life, black people were leading the way in popular music, and black directors were making some of the most popular movies (including "blaxploitation films" like Shaft, Superfly, Blacula, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and Uptown Saturday Night), some people were furious that a black man was in position to break Ruth's record.

It got to the point where Charles Schulz, the cartoonist behind Peanuts, satirized it by having Snoopy approach the record, and get hate mail over it:
Even some people who didn't seem to be racist didn't want the record broken, saying that Hank getting to 715 would make people "forget" Ruth. "I don't want them to forget Babe Ruth," Hank said. "I just want them to remember me."

It didn't help that Ruth was dead. He would have been 66 years old when Roger Maris of the Yankees broke the single-season record of 60 with his "61 in '61." He had a very unhealthy lifestyle, but had he taken care of himself, it wouldn't have been impossible for him to still be alive at age 78 in 1973, and offered his support. His widow, Claire Ruth, didn't want either 60 or 714 to fall. But it's easy to imagine a still-living Bambino saying, on either occasion, "This is good for baseball. And anything that's good for baseball is good for me."

And with Jackie Robinson having died the preceding October, Maris, who got 100 men's shares of hate mail and phone calls, was the one man who had any idea of what Hank was going through. Now retired and running a beer distributorship in Gainesville, Florida, he made the 330-mile trip to Atlanta to meet Hank on July 16.
This photo is rare not just because it shows the two "home run kings" together,
but because it shows Roger Maris without his famous crew cut.

One thing Maris did not have to deal with in 1961 was racism. But he was mocked as "a .270 hitter." Aaron finished the 1973 season with a .301 average. Plagued by injuries, Maris retired in 1968, only 34 years old, with 275 home runs. Aaron was still going strong, in spite of the stress.

Hank realized he had another advantage. If Roger had fallen short, he would have had to start all over again the next year. If Hank fell short in 1973, he would still be able to break the record the next year. There was no pressure coming from the calendar. (It was coming from the haters.)

But fans weren't coming out to see his march to the record. The Braves drew only 800,655 fans, just 9,885 per game. "The City Too Busy to Hate" may also have been too busy to care. The Braves being 76-85, in 5th place, may have had something to do with that. But on September 29, the next-to-last day of the season, home to the Houston Astros, Hank hit Number 713 off Jerry Reuss. The Braves won, 7-0. Attendance: 17,836.

Suddenly, people realized that, in the season finale, if Hank hit 2 home runs, hardly impossible, he would break the record. If he hit 1, he would tie it. And so, on September 30, 40,517 people came out -- still well short of the listed capacity of 52,007. Hank had an RBI single in the 1st. He singled again in the 4th. He singled again in the 6th. Three hits, a successful game by almost anybody's standard. But now, it was almost impossible to break the record on this day. And he flew out in the 8th. The Astros won, 5-3.

The season was over, and Hank Aaron had 713 career home runs. And so began a long wait. And the threats kept coming in. There was even a mailed thread to kidnap his daughter at college. Hank hired a personal bodyguard, an Atlanta policeman named Calvin Wardlaw. He even stayed in a separate hotel from his teammates -- not because he wasn't allowed in the same hotel with his white teammates, as had been the case 20 years ago, but for his teammates' protection from anyone who might come after Hank.

On April 2, 1974, as the new season approached, NBC broadcast a baseball-themed special hosted by Bob Hope. The legendary entertainer had once been a part-owner of the Cleveland Indians. Among the special's sketches was a scene in which Aaron was on line at a supermarket. The woman behind the register said, "That'll be $7.14." Hank counted his money and said, "I have $7.13. Would you settle for that?" The cashier said, "Would you?" Hank looked at the camera and said, "no."

Mathews said he would hold Hank out of the season-opening series in Cincinnati against the Reds, so that he could tie and break the record at home. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, never missing an opportunity to be a cold-hearted jerk, told Braves management that the team would be fined if Hank wasn't played in at least 2 out of the 3 games, because the Braves were supposed to be fielding their best possible team. (But Commissioners, including Kuhn, have never had a problem with teams saving money with "fire sales.")

Kuhn made things worse by saying that he would not be attending the Braves' home opener, because he already had a speaking engagement in Cleveland that night. Finally, he bowed to public pressure, and announced he would attend the opener in Cincinnati. Gerald Ford, then the Vice President of the United States, would also be in attendance at Riverfront Stadium.

In the top of the 1st inning, with 1 out, Ralph Garr on 2nd and Mike Lum on 1st, Hank drilled a pitch from Jack Billingham over the fence in left-center field. It was Number 714. When he got to 3rd base, he got a handshake from Pete Rose, who would have a similar moment on that field in 1985, when he officially surpassed Ty Cobb for most career hits. When he got to home plate, he received a handshake from Johnny Bench.

The record had been tied. It was his only hit on the day, and the Reds won, 7-4. Mathews held him out of the next game, which the Reds won, 7-5. He went 0-for-3 in the next game, which the Braves won, 5-3.

April 8, 1974. Opening Night in Atlanta. The attendance was announced as 53,774, and it remains a home record for the Braves franchise, in any city. The game was broadcast live on NBC, just in case. The Braves were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were wearing black armbands in memory of Bobbie McMullen, wife of Dodger 3rd baseman Ken McMullen. She had died of cancer 2 days earlier.

Kuhn was not in attendance. Nor was Ford. Nor was Nixon, who was getting deeper and deeper into Watergate. But the Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, was there. So was the Mayor of Atlanta, the city's 1st black man so elected, Maynard Jackson. So was Pearl Bailey, who sang the National Anthem, as she had for the Mets' World Series clincher in 1969. So was Sammy Davis Jr. The great song-and-dance man said he would pay $25,000 -- about $131,000 in today's money -- for the record-breaking home run ball.

Al Downing was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers. The lefthander from Trenton, New Jersey had been the 1st black pitcher for the Yankees, in 1961. In 1964, he had led the American League in strikeouts, the 1st black pitcher to have done that. He had worn Number 24 for the Yankees, the same number that Mays had made famous with the Giants. Now, with the Dodgers, he was wearing 44, the same number as Aaron.

Hank led off the bottom of the 2nd, and drew a walk. Dusty Baker doubled him home, to give the Braves a 1-0 lead. The Dodgers took a 3-1 lead in the top of the 3rd, and still held it in the bottom of the 4th. Darrell Evans reached 1st base on an error. That brought Hank to the plate.

Downing threw a curveball, and it went into the dirt for ball 1. At 9:07 PM Eastern Daylight Time, he threw another fastball.
Milo Hamilton had the call for WGST, 920 on the AM dial (now WGKA):

Henry Aaron, in the second inning, walked and scored. He's sittin' on 714. Here's the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There's a drive into left-center field! That ball is gonna be... outta here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron! The fireworks are going! Henry Aaron is coming around third! His teammates are at home plate! And listen to this crowd! This sellout crowd is cheering Henry Aaron, the home run king of all time!"

Because of Hamilton's call, Aaron would spend the rest of his life being called "the Home Run King," much more than "the home run leader."

The Dodgers' telecast, on KTTV-Channel 11, had Vin Scully with the call. Having broadcast for the team since 1950, when they were still in Brooklyn, and still had black MLB pioneers like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, he knew what the moment meant:

One ball and no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep to straightaway. Fastball, there's a high drive to deep left-center field! Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!

Scully then paused, as Aaron got around the bases and reached home plate, then resumed:

What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the State of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world: A black man is getting a standing ovation, in the Deep South, for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.

It was a marvelous moment, and it was embraced by 99.99 percent of baseball fans. Writing about the event 30 years later, Tom Stanton would title his book about the record chase Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America.

Bill Buckner was the Dodgers' left fielder that night. He climbed the fence to try to catch the ball, but he had no chance. After his error allowed the winning run to score in the Mets' Game 6 win over the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, someone suggested that, in concert with "The Curse of the Bambino" on the Red Sox, Ruth was punishing Buckner for not catching the ball. This was stupid: How did this person explain all the other outfielders who failed to catch Aaron's home run balls, and weren't "punished"? Or Downing, and the other pitchers who gave them up?

There was a scary moment. With all of the death threats, including from some men claiming they would be in attendance with rifles to shoot Hank before he could reach home plate (as if the home run wouldn't have counted anyway), bodyguard Wardlaw was looking around with binoculars for men with guns, like a Secret Service agent, and had his own gun ready.

After all, it had been 11 years since the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Medgar Evers; 9 years since that of Malcolm X; 8 years since The Beatles had gotten death threats on their last tour; 6 years since the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator/Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and the shooting of painter Andy Warhol; 4 years since an attempted assassination of Pope Paul VI; and 2 years since an attempted assassination of Governor George Wallace of Alabama during a Presidential campaign. People already knew that celebrities were not necessarily safe.

(The following year would see 2 failed attempts to assassinate Ford, by then the President. Five years after that, former Beatle John Lennon would be shot and killed. Within 4 months of that, President Ronald Reagan would be shot and nearly killed.)

Wardlaw knew that Hank was still in danger. And Britt Gaston (on the left in the photo) and Cliff Courtenay, 2 long-haired 17-year-olds from Waycross, Georgia, ran onto the field, and patted Hank on the back. It happened quickly, and Wardlaw had to make a quick decision as to what do to. In 2005, he recalled:

People asked me afterward, "Where were you for the big moment, Calvin?" And I tell them that my instinct was, at that moment, that, even if I could have gotten out there, my man was not in danger. And I tell them something else: What if I had decided to shoot my two-barreled .38 at those two boys, if I thought he was in a life-threatening situation, and had hit Hank Aaron instead, on the night he hit No. 715?
Gaston and Courtenay were arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing, but nothing worse than that. Gaston's father bailed them out of jail at 3:30 AM, paying $100 for each of them. The next morning, the charges were dropped. Taking no chances, Estella Aaron wrapped her arms around her son right after he got to home plate, as if to say, "If you want to hurt my son, you'll have to go through me, first." Herbert Sr., Herbert Jr. and Tommie were also there.

Gaston went on to run a graphics business in South Carolina, was a season-ticket holder for University of Georgia football, and died of cancer in 2012, at age 55. Courtenay is now 63 years old, and an optometrist in Valdosta. Both had become friends with Aaron.

The ball dropped in front of an ad for BankAmericard, whose name was changed to Visa in 1976. It landed in the Braves' bullpen, where it was caught by reliever Tom House. House left the bullpen, and presented Hank with the ball. It was not sold to Sammy Davis Jr. It now resides in the museum section of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, as does the bat Hank hit it with, and so does the entire uniform that he wore that day.
Governor Carter gave him a Georgia license plate with his initials and the magic number: HLA 715.
Jimmy, Hank and Billye

"Thank God it's over," he would say. Oh, yes, the game: The Braves scored twice more in that bottom of the 4th inning, and went on to win, 7-4.

Hank finished the season with 20 home runs at age 40, and 733 for his career. That remains a record for home runs for a single team. (Ruth hit 659 for the Yankees.)

*

In 1970, Bud Selig, a Milwaukee car dealer who had been trying to bring MLB back to his hometown after the Braves left, had bought the bankrupt Seattle Pilots, moved them to Milwaukee County Stadium, and given them the name of every pro baseball team in the city before the Braves: The Milwaukee Brewers. At the time, they were in the American League, which, unlike the National League, had adopted the designated hitter.

On November 2, 1974, recognizing that even he had slowed down -- he had been mainly a 1st baseman from 1971 onward, and was playing left field the night he hit Number 715 -- the Braves traded Hank Aaron back to his 1st major league city. He went to the Brewers, who sent the Braves outfielder Dave May, who had been an All-Star in 1973; and Roger Alexander, a pitcher then in Class AA, who ended up never making the major leagues.

Milwaukee fans welcomed Hank back with open arms. But it soon became clear that he was at the end of the line. In 1975, he batted .234 with just 10 home runs, giving him 745. He was still selected to the All-Star Game, held in Milwaukee. It was his 24th, tying a record held by Musial and Mays.
In 1976, he batted .229. On July 20, batting at County Stadium against Dick Drago of the California Angels, he hit his 755th career home run. Nobody knew it at the time, but, with more than 2 months left in the season, it would be his last.

On October 3, the Brewers closed the season at home against the Tigers. Hank was the DH, and batted in his customary 4th position, despite all evidence that he was done. He singled home Charlie Moore in the bottom of the 6th, and was replaced by pinch-runner Jim Gantner, to a standing ovation.

It was his 3,771st career hit, then 2nd all-time behind only Ty Cobb. In other words, he had over 3,000 hits that weren't home runs. He had 1,477 extra-base hits, still a record: 624 doubles and 98 triples, to go with his 755 home runs. It was his 2,297th run batted in, also still a record. It gave him 6,856 total bases, also still a record.

He also retired with these statistics: A .305 batting average, a .374 on-base percentage, a .555 slugging percentage, and a 155 OPS+. And he retired with another interesting distinction: He was the last former Negro League player who was still playing Major League Baseball.

In case you're wondering: As a World Champion, an MVP, and a former batting champion, he got a contract for 1958 worth $35,000; as a man with over 500 career home runs, he got a contract for 1969 worth $92,500; as a man with over 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, he got a contract for 1971 worth $125,000; and in each of the last 2 seasons of his career, as the all-time leader in home runs, extra-base hits, total bases and RBIs, he made $240,000. That had been intended as the highest salary in baseball, until Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent and got a bigger one from the Yankees.

The Braves retired Number 44 for him, elected him to their team Hall of Fame, and dedicated a statue of him outside their ballpark. In each case, the Brewers did the same, though that was mainly in recognition for what he did for the Braves in Milwaukee.

In 1982, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was his 1st year of eligibility, and he got 97.8 percent of the vote, 406 out of 415. Begging the question: Who were the 9 men who chose to not vote for Hank Aaron for the Hall of Fame?

In 1999, The Sporting News named its 100 Greatest Baseball Players. Hank was ranked 5th, trailing Ruth, Mays, Cobb and Walter Johnson. The same year, baseball fans voted him onto the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, which was introduced before Game 2 of the World Series. As luck would have it, the Braves had won the Pennant, so the ceremony was held at their new home, Turner Field. Hank threw out the game's ceremonial first ball.

Also that year, in connection with the 25th Anniversary of his breaking the record, Selig, now Commissioner of Baseball, founded the Hank Aaron Award. Just as the Cy Young Award goes to the best pitcher in each League, the Aaron Award goes to the best hitter.

When the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson for the 1977 season, he couldn't wear the Number 9 he had worn in Oakland and Baltimore, because it was worn by Graig Nettles. He wanted to switch to Number 42, in memory of Jackie Robinson. But it was given to pitching coach Art Fowler. So, to honor the newly-retired Aaron, Reggie asked for Number 44.

Willie McCovey of the Giants also wore 44, because, like Aaron, he was a native of Mobile, Alabama. McCovey had also hit his 500th home run at Fulton County Stadium, in 1978. He finished his career with 521 home runs; Reggie, with 563.

On July 6, 2002, Reggie was given a Plaque for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. His father, Martinez "Marty" Jackson, had played in the Negro Leagues. So, to the ceremony, he invited 3 men who, like himself, had hit over 500 home runs in the major leagues, and had, like his father, played in the Negro Leagues: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.

When Turner Field opened for the 1997 season, its address was 755 Hank Aaron Drive. Fulton County Stadium was torn down, to make way for parking for Turner Field, but the sign beyond the left field fence to mark where the record-breaking ball fell was restored to its former spot, on a fence.
In 2017, Turner Field was replaced by SunTrust Park, now named Truist Park, whose address is 755 Battery Avenue. Because the City of Atlanta didn't want to give up the Aaron statue outside Turner Field, a new statue of Hank was dedicated at Truist Park's Monument Garden.

Hank was elected to the Sports Halls of Fame of the States of Alabama, Georgia and Wisconsin. The NAACP awarded him their Spingarn Medal for 1976. In 1997, his hometown of Mobile opened the 6,000-seat Hank Aaron Stadium. Honoring him, but also a family of local activists, the address is 755 Bolling Brothers Boulevard. In 2002, President George W. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Clinton Yates of ESPN has suggested that, in order to get away from the Native American mascot controversy, the Braves should change their name to the Atlanta Hammers. Maybe in time for the 2024 season, the 50th Anniversary of the record-breaking home run?

After his retirement, Aaron was hired by the Braves' front office. Even more so than as an active player, he fought for more inclusiveness in baseball. The Braves became the 1st team to hire a black general manager, Ed Lucas. And he was among the people who convinced the Hall of Fame to take another look at black players before Jackie Robinson, even before the establishment of the first Negro League in 1920, to consider them for election.

There are now 10 men in the Hall who played in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues: Aaron, Mays, Banks, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, and Leroy "Satchel" Paige -- a Mobile native, like Aaron. 

There are 27 in the Hall who played only in the Negro Leagues: Andrew "Rube" Foster, his brother Bill Foster, Josh Gibson, Walter "Buck" Leonard, James "Cool Papa" Bell, William "Judy" Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Willie Wells, Bullet Joe Rogan, Smokey Joe Williams, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, Hilton Smith, Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Pete Hill, Biz Mackey, José Méndez, Cum Posey, Louis Santop, Mule Suttles, Ben Taylor, Cristóbal Torriente and Jud Wilson.

There is also Frank Grant, who played before the institution of the Negro Leagues; and 4 Negro League executives: J.L. Wilkinson, Sol White, Alex Pompez, and the only woman in the Hall of Fame, Effa Manley.

On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants stepped to the plate against Mike Bascik of the Washington Nationals, and hit his 756th career home run. Already having the single-season home run record, with 73 in 2001, he now held the career record as well. He would finish the season with 763, and retire.

I did not see Hank hit Number 715. Even though it was only 9:07 PM Eastern Time, my mother made me go to bed. And, at the age of 4, I wouldn't have been aware of it, anyway.

I did not see Barry hit Number 756. It was 11:46 PM Eastern Time, but, at that point in my life, staying up late wasn't an issue. Nor was access: The game was on ESPN. I chose not to watch it, because I knew that Bonds had cheated, using performance-enhancing drugs, probably from the 1999 season onward, in response to the fuss made over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpassing Roger Maris' single-season record in 1998, while he, a better all-around player than either, wasn't getting the same kind of attention.

Aaron was a better sport about it than I was. Although he didn't go to San Francisco for the game, he taped a message to be played on the video board at what's now named Oracle Park:

I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years.

I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams. 

Bonds was now, and remains, and is likely to remain for a very long time, the all-time home run leader. But, for so many, Aaron was, and is, still the Home Run King. Including myself: Every time I look at a digital clock and see either 7:15 or 7:55, I think of Hank Aaron. Even though I wasn't old enough to have watched it, and have never lived anywhere near either Milwaukee or Atlanta.

*

On February 19, 2020, I waited to be admitted to a hospital, as I was scheduled for hip replacement surgery. The waiting room had NBC's The Today Show on the TV, and Hank was interviewed. Although age and infirmity had left him in a wheelchair, his mind was still sharp, and his hopes for a good future, for baseball and for America, were intact.
That gave me a good feeling as I went in. I am glad that, for 51 years, I shared a planet, and for 47 seasons, I shared a love of a sport, with Henry Louis Aaron.

Sadly, today, January 22, 2021, that share came to an end. Hank died of a stroke in his sleep, at his home in Atlanta. He was 86 years old.

His death leaves 8 surviving members of Milwaukee's only World Series-winning team, the 1957 Braves: Del Crandall, Félix Mantilla, Bobby Malkmus, Mel Roach, John DeMerit, Juan Pizarro, Taylor Phillips and Joey Jay.

It leaves 11 surviving members of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team: Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr.

It leaves Mays and Rocky Colavito as the only surviving players from the 1960 TV series Home Run Derby.

And it leaves Mays as the only surviving player from the 1950s segment of Terry Cashman's song "Talkin' Baseball (Willie, Mikcey and the Duke)."

Here is some of the reaction:

Brian Snitker, current manager of the Braves: "I don't know if tough even describes it. The Braves family lost another one of our biggest fans. I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for Hank Aaron. He's the reason I'm here."

* Chipper Jones, a later Braves Hall-of-Famer: "He played for the Galactic All Stars... We're just mere Earthlings. He was on a different level."

* Frank Thomas, Chicago White Sox Hall-of-Famer, a 6-year-old kid in Georgia when Number 715 was hit: "I'm speechless! RIP to the greatest of all time Mr. Hank Aaron!! I'm just stunned. Hank was the standard of greatness for me."

* Reggie Jackson: "There are athletes that are regal, noble... that have this stature, the way they carry themselves, and we honor, we admire, we love them, they are very dear to us. And so, losing Hank Aaron was, for me, I was shocked."

* Magic Johnson, Basketball Hall-of-Famer with the Los Angeles Lakers, and owner of the defending World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers: "Rest in Peace to American hero, icon, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I still remember where I was back in the day when he set the record, at that time, to become the home run all time leader. While a legendary athlete, Hank Aaron was also an extraordinary businessman, and paved the way for other athletes like me to successfully transition into business. Hank Aaron is on the Mount Rushmore for the greatest baseball players of all time! Rest In Peace my friend. Cookie and I are praying for the entire Aaron family."

* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic's Hall of Fame teammate on the Lakers, previously played for the Bucks, making him Hank's fellow Milwaukee sports legend: "One of my heroes died today. RIP Hank Aaron."

* Bill Russell, Basketball Hall-of-Famer with the Boston Celtics: "Heartbroken to see another true friend & pioneer has passed away. @HenryLouisAaron was so much better than his reputation! His contributions were much more than just baseball."

* A spokesman for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City: "Our NLBM family joins the baseball world in mourning the lost of legendary Henry Aaron. Mr. Aaron was no stranger to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. More like family. This one hurts us for sure."

* Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, and Governor of Georgia when Hank broke the record: "Rosalynn and I are saddened by the passing of our dear friend Henry Aaron. One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us. A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come. We send our love to Billye and their family and to Hank's many fans around the world."

* Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta: "While the world knew him as ‘Hammering Hank Aaron’ because of his incredible, record-setting baseball career, he was a cornerstone of our village, graciously and freely joining Mrs. Aaron in giving their presence and resources toward making our city a better place."

* Rev. Raphael Warnock, newly-sworn in as a U.S. Senator from Georgia: "As a proud Georgian & American, I celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Hank Aaron - a sports icon who broke records on the field, while also breaking barriers in the field of civil rights and human relations."

* Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both Atlanta natives: "We will miss you. Your leadership. Your grace. Your generosity. Your love. Thank you, #HankAaron."

* Kay Ivey, Governor of his home State of Alabama: "From his legendary career to his civil rights activism, he inspired many young boys and girls to pursue their dreams and pursue excellence in whatever they do."

Lenny Kravitz, music legend: "Hank Aaron, my childhood baseball hero, has gone home. Watching him break Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs on television was a monumental moment. As a young black child, he inspired me to push for excellence. Rest easy Sir."

* Stephen King, horror novelist and noted Boston Red Sox fan: "RIP The Hammer -- Hank Aaron has passed away. Could he play the game, or what?"

* President Joe Biden: "Each time Henry Aaron rounded the bases, he wasn't just chasing a record, he was helping us chase a better version of ourselves -- melting away the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a nation. He was an American hero. God bless, Henry 'Hank' Aaron."

Aaron lived to see 15 different Presidents of the United States, from Franklin Roosevelt until Biden.

But if baseball had a King in this era, it was Hank Aaron. "The King is dead, long live the King."