Braves honor Aaron, 'face of baseball's greatness'
Commissioner Selig present to celebrate 40th anniversary of home run No. 715
ATLANTA -- Bobby Cox was in the midst of managing a game for Triple-A Syracuse. John Schuerholz was at his Kansas City residence viewing NBC's nationally televised broadcast of a game that created one of the most memorable moments in sports history.
Like most long-standing members of the baseball world, Cox and Schuerholz have vivid memories of what they were doing the night that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
While they were not present at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that night, Cox and Schuerholz were among the thousands who crowded Turner Field on Tuesday night to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the night Aaron hit his historic 715th home run.
"Hank is a part of our family," said Schuerholz, who now serves as the Braves' president. "He's the face of our franchise and the face of baseball's greatness. You don't get a chance to honor a man of this magnitude who is a part of your family and your organization very often."
After partaking in Tuesday's ceremony, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said he remembers watching the historic home run on television in Milwaukee. But Selig still has a vivid memory of the day he skipped a college class to watch his beloved Milwaukee Braves win the National League pennant thanks to the 11th-inning walk-off home run Aaron hit against the Cardinals on Sept. 22, 1957.
"I believe Hank Aaron was ideally suited to become Babe Ruth's heir. ... He is the living embodiment of the American spirit," Selig said as he addressed the crowd during a pregame ceremony.
Selig later expanded on this thought. "When you think of the impact, just like the impact Jackie Robinson had, here was a man breaking the most famous sports record in the world set by Babe Ruth," Selig said. "We were lucky. Baseball was really lucky. You had this thoughtful, sensitive, really decent person [breaking the record]. So we were the ones who were lucky. He is what you hope an icon will be but often isn't."
While stating that Aaron has always "done it right" during his pregame address, Braves CEO and chairman Terry McGuirk pressed the hot button by adding "You will always be the home run king of all time."
Barry Bonds has hit more home runs (762) than any player in MLB history. But Bonds' status as one of the most scrutinized players of the last 20 years has led many to consider Aaron as baseball's home run king.
When asked if he considers Aaron to be baseball's home run king, Selig said, "I'm always in a sensitive spot, but I've said that myself, and I'll just leave it at that."
Others in attendance on Tuesday included Al Downing, the Dodgers pitcher who served up No. 715; Dusty Baker, who was on deck when Aaron homered; and Tom House, the former Braves reliever who caught the historic drive after it sailed over the left-field wall.
After 715 fans filled the outfield grass, each holding a sign commemorating one of Aaron's home runs, Downing threw the ceremonial first pitch. Aaron might have done the honor had he not fractured his left hip when he slipped on ice near his Atlanta home in February.
Aaron used a walker as he entered the field and then stepped to the microphone to address the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony and the Braves' home opener against the Mets.
"You were there cheering for me then, and you're here cheering for me now," Aaron said to the crowd. "I am very grateful for that."
Aaron received a personalized jersey from each of Atlanta's professional sports teams and many of the city's surrounding universities. Falcons owner Arthur Blank, former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley and former Georgia Tech football coach Bill Curry were among those who participated in the unveiling of the jerseys.
"Every time Hank Aaron walks into the clubhouse, you are in awe," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "It's not every day that somebody walks into a big league clubhouse and causes the players to be in awe."