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One for the Record
The Inside Story of Hank Aaron's Chase for the Home Run Record
Foreword by Bob Costas
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In One For the Record, George Plimpton recounts Hank Aaron’s thrilling race to become the new home run champion. Amidst media frenzy and death threats, Aaron sought to beat Babe Ruth’s record. In 1974, he finally succeeded.
A fascinating examination of the psychology of baseball players, One For the Record gives an absorbing account of the men on the mound who had to face Aaron. But the book’s true genius lies in the portrait of Aaron himself, and his discussions on his philosophy on hitting and the game of baseball.
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It was a simple act by an unassuming man which touched an enormous circle of people, indeed an entire country. It provided an instant which people would remember for decades—exactly what they were doing at the time of the home run that beat Babe Ruth's great record of 714 home runs which had stood for 39 years, whether they were watching it on a television set, or heard it over the car radio while driving along the turnpike at night, or whether a neighbor leaned over a picket fence and told them about it the next morning.
Its effect was far-reaching, and more powerful than one would expect from the act of hitting a ball over a fence. The sports correspondent from El Sol de México, almost overcome with emotion, ended his piece on the Aaron 715th home run with thanks to God. "We lived through his historic moment, the most fabulous in the world. Thanks to God we witnessed this moment of history."
In Japan the huge headlines in Tokyo's premier sports daily read haiku-like: WHITE BALL DANCES THROUGH ATLANTA'S WHITE MIST and under the subhead I SAW IT the correspondent began: "In my Atlanta hotel room I now begin writing this copy. I know I have to be calm. But I find it impossible to prevent my writing hand from continuing to shake."
It caused tragedy. In Jacksonville, Florida, a taxicab driver shot himself when his wife pulled him out of his chair in front of the television to send him out to work just as he was settling down to the game. He died before the home run was hit.
In what might have seemed an illogical place, the instant caught the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, addressing a Cleveland Indians Booster dinner in the Cleveland Stadium Club. In the controversy which had boiled up over Aaron's wish to skip the Cincinnati series and open in Atlanta before his hometown fans, the commissioner had ruled against him and ordered him to play. Kuhn had vowed to be on hand for 715, but the moment found him on the dais reminiscing about Johnny Allen, the Indians pitcher famed for disconcerting batters with a tattered sleeve on his pitching arm.
Almost everyone else in baseball was in front of a television set. In Kansas City the ancient black pitcher Satchel Paige had 17 of his family crowded around ("all these sisters-in-law of mine") and when they saw the ball hit they began shouting and they could hear the people next door carrying on the same way.
For those who sat in the stadium in Atlanta their recollections would be especially intimate—the sharp cork-pop sound of the bat hitting the ball, startlingly audible in that split second of suspense before the crowd began a roar that lasted for more than ten minutes. Perhaps that is what they would remember—how people stood in front of their seats and sucked in air and bellowed it out in a sustained tribute that no other athlete has ever received. Or perhaps they would remember the wonder at how easy and inevitable it seemed—that having opened the season in Cincinnati by hitting the tying home-run number 714 with his first swing of the year, it was obviously appropriate that the man called "Supe" by his teammates (for Superman) was going to duplicate the feat in Atlanta with his first swing of that game to break the record. That was why 53,775 had come. Or perhaps they would remember the odd way the stadium emptied after the excitement of the fourth inning, as if the crowd felt that what they had seen would be diluted by sitting through any more baseball that night.
But finally there were those few in the core of that immense circle—the participants themselves—who would be the ones most keenly touched: the pitcher, in this case a gap-toothed pleasant veteran named Al Downing who of the more than 100 National League pitchers happened to be the one who threw a fastball at a certain moment that did not tail away properly; the hitter, Henry Aaron himself, for whom the event, despite his grace in dealing with it, had become so traumatic that little in the instant was to be relished except the relief that it had been done; the Braves' sports announcer, whose imagination for months had been working up words to describe the event to the outside world; and a young bullpen pitcher who would reach in the air and establish contact with a ball whose value as baseball's greatest talisman had been monetarily pegged at $25,000 and whose sentimental value was incalculable.…
It was about 11 o'clock on opening day morning when we left for Riverfront Stadium—a writer friend and I walking over from the hotel. It's just a short walk from downtown Cincinnati. We bought some heated peanuts from an elderly vendor in top hat and tails and brown shoes. The wind was strong and he reached up and held his top hat in place while he filled the coarse paper bags. The tornadoes had come through the area the afternoon before, touching their funnels down within miles, but now the weather was clear, the wind snapping the baseball pennants stiff around the rim of the stadium.
"Is Billingham still scheduled to pitch?" I asked. "I don't know anything about him."
"A big baby-faced guy. He's good."
"How'd you like to be in his shoes?"
"You ever see Aaron hit a home run?" my friend asked.
"I saw him hit 713 on the second-to-last day of last season," I said. "I almost saw him hit 712. I was riding in a taxi from the Houston airport, just rushing to get to the Astrodome because I was writing the Sports Illustrated story on his chase of Ruth, really urging the driver on, 'Faster! Faster!' He was moving along about 80 miles an hour. Aaron came up, we could hear it on the car radio, in an early inning, and he hit one. I cried out in despair and slumped back in my seat. The driver looked around and said that, boy, was I some sort of fan…"
"Right on the job." The writer laughed.
"Well, I tried. When I got to the Astrodome, Bill Acree, who's the Braves' equipment manager, showed me the bat he hit it with.… It was splintered against the grain, which he'd never seen before. Unbelievable power. The ball had gone right between the hands of a guy reaching for it in left field and it hit an iron rail and bounced practically back in the infield."
We strolled along in the sun. We leaned on the balustrade, watching the traffic flow below on the highway.
"What's your angle on the story?" he asked.
"Well, my original idea was to deal with the artifacts themselves—like that splintered bat. Do you know Irwin Shaw's great war novel, The Young Lions? Well, his original notion was to take the bullet that killed his hero and take it back to its genesis, and write about all the people involved in turning a piece of iron ore in the ground into something that ends up in a soldier's body—the miners, the munition workers, the generals, the guy that wears the thing in his bandolier and shoves it into his rifle clip, and how these two—the bullet and the soldier—come together in some glade in the Ardennes. He discarded it finally—too artificial and cumbersome, I suppose…"
"I can guess," the writer said. "You want to do the same with the ball Aaron hits. You want to go back to the goddamn cow, for Chrissake, or the horse, whatever the ball is made of, right back to the animal grazing on some Andalusian meadow…"
"Something like that," I said lamely. "And, you know… who sewed the stitches, and who packages it in the red Spalding box, and the umpire who rubs it up and stamps it with a special number, and the pitcher, of course. There's an awful lot of research, I agree…"
"And the bat, of course—an ash tree."
"Oh Christ! And some guy coming along with an ax."
"The idea has upset you. I can tell."
"I keep thinking of that cow of yours—standing out there, and some kid coming along with a rope to lead the cow to the slaughterhouse, and that I'm going to have to read what you write about it."
"Well, I've dropped the whole idea. I couldn't have handled the cow business, I agree."
"What have you decided to do instead?" he asked after a while.
"I thought maybe I'd adapt the concept to the four principals involved in the home run—Henry Aaron, of course, the batter; the pitchers, whoever they are, maybe Billingham this afternoon will be one; and then the fans who catch the balls—715 I hear is now worth $25,000—all people who are obviously going to be affected by number 714 and 715 in the most decisive way."
"Who's the fourth?"
"A fellow called Milo Hamilton, who is the broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves. He will be announcing the event to the outside world… he told me last fall that he was going to prepare a phrase… maybe something really terrific… to say when the ball sails over the fence."
"So that's what you're going to do?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Write about those four people."
"You promise to forget the cow?"
The poor goon. All those years toiling on the mound, the area Early Wynn referred to as the "office"—peering down the long alley toward the plate at those constant disturbers of his sense of well-being settling into their stances and flicking their bats—to look down one day and find Henry Aaron there, standing easily in the farthest reaches of the batter's box looking out, the large, peaceful, dark face with the big eyes and the high forehead, and knowing that one mistake, one small lapse of concentration and ability would place his name forever in the record book as having thrown one of the "immortal gophers," either the one that tied, or more particularly the one breaking, Ruth's record of 714.
For the last weeks of the 1973 season and now the first games of 1974 those pitchers scheduled in the rotation against the Braves have been involved in a sort of cosmic game of Russian roulette—it being inevitable that a pair of them, or perhaps even one, would be responsible for giving up the 714th and 715th home runs. It is a traumatic situation for them. In the left-field seats a forest of raised fishnets and gloved hands rises and sways in expectation. The pitcher is practically the only person in the park who does not want to see the home run hit. Even some of his own teammates would not be displeased to see the last historic hits of Aaron's chase of Ruth's record, though they might be judicious enough to keep it to themselves. In the penultimate week of the 1973 season, I heard about a scuffle that had almost broken out in the Los Angeles dugout when a couple of the younger Dodgers, casting aside their team affiliation, began urging a long Aaron drive out of the park—"Get on over; get out!"—carried away in their hope to see a part of history; they got some hard stares and shoving from one or two of the more aggressively competitive of their elders, especially Andy Messersmith, who is not only a strong team man but a pitcher hardly agreeable to seeing one of his kind humbled.
On the last day of the 1973 season I remember getting a sense of how it affected a pitcher. Dave Roberts, the Houston Astros right-hander, was scheduled to pitch against the Braves. Before the game, he sat in front of his locker looking crestfallen. He was awfully jittery. "You know what's going on in my mind?" he said to me. "What I should be doing is concentrating on my 17th victory of the year. But I've been thinking about him. I thought about him all last night. He was just deposited there in my mind. What really got me was that I knew that he wasn't thinking about me at all. I wished I'd known his home telephone number, so's I could have called him every 20 minutes—'How's it going, Hank?'—just to let him know I was around."
It turned out that Roberts's hotel room was equipped with a cassette receiver on the TV set which allowed him to choose from a number of films provided by the management. Haphazardly, during the restless night, he made a selection and sat down on the edge of the bed to discover he was watching The Poseidon Adventure, the catastrophe-laden film about a cruise ship overturning in the Mediterranean. "Not the best therapy," he said. "It was so inappropriate considering what I faced the next day that I turned it off after a few minutes."
In that game Roberts survived three Aaron turns at bat by giving up three singles which raised the batter's average to .301; then, with his nervous system perhaps betraying him, the pitcher pulled a muscle in his back in the middle of the seventh inning and was removed. In such a situation the relieving pitcher is allowed as much time as he wants to warm up. Don Wilson, Roberts's reliever, off whom Aaron had hit his 611th home run, said later that as he stood on the mound it crossed his mind just to keep on warming up indefinitely, shaking his head and saying "No, not yet" to the umpires until night fell, and the moon came up, and perhaps at ten thirty the next morning some sort of statute of limitations would run out the season and he would be able to pack up and go home, sore-armed but relieved, to Houston, Texas.
The pitcher Jack Billingham would have done well to go to for advice is the tall, sidearm whip-motion Dodger right-hander, Don Drysdale, now retired from active baseball and working as a broadcaster with the California Angels. Aaron hit the astonishing total of 17 home runs off him. Next down the line is Claude Osteen, who has been touched for 13. He is still active. He once said, "The last time I pitched against Aaron my dad came to the game. He took me aside: 'Don't let Aaron hit one off you.' Then he shook my hand and thought to say, 'Hello, son.'"
When Osteen's rotation comes up against the Braves, Drysdale often calls him on the phone (the two are former teammates) to remind him that he'd be delighted to be taken off the hook for being Aaron's special patsy. ("Now Claude, don't let down. That record is within reach.")
Drysdale is predictably defensive about his past troubles with Aaron. He pointed out to me with the keen recall almost all ballplayers seem to have in regard to their personal statistics that in the first two years he faced Aaron (a total of 17 at bats each year) he only gave up one hit—a triple up the alley in right center which beat him in a game in Milwaukee in the summer of 1957. Thus at the beginning of their rivalry Drysdale was holding Aaron to a sub-.100 batting average.
But then there were the bad years for Drysdale. In both 1959 and 1963 Aaron hit four home runs off him. Drysdale never felt it was possible to establish much of a "book" on how to pitch to Aaron. "Besides, there never is any set way to pitch to a great hitter; if there were, he'd be hitting .220. He's one of those 'five fingers and a prayer on the ball' hitters."
"What does he look like to you at the plate?" I asked.
"I always used to think that he had a lot of Stan Musial in his stance. From the pitcher's mound they both seem to coil at you. The only sensible thing—if you couldn't get the manager to let you skip a turn against him—was to mix the pitches, and keep the ball low, and if you were pitching to spots, it was important to miss bad. If you missed good, and the ball got in his power alley, sometimes you were glad it went out of the park and was not banged up the middle."
Drysdale was just in awe of the concussive nature of Aaron's power. He told me about a 250-foot home run Aaron duck-hooked into the short "Chinese wall" screen in the Los Angeles Coliseum—so hard that Drysdale got a crick in his neck from turning abruptly to watch it go by. "It's bad enough to have him hit any home run off you—turning and looking and saying to yourself, 'My God, how far is that one going to go?' But with the Coliseum home run I ended up not only in mental anguish, but literally in physical pain."
"At least you're not around now," I said.
"I've seen what happens out at the ballpark," he said. "It's a tough thing for a pitcher."
Jack Billingham had good reason to worry about Aaron—having already had some uncomfortable confrontations with him. For sure, he had struck him out with the bases loaded to end one game, but on the other hand, Aaron had hit four home runs off him in five years, including one which cost Billingham what would have been his first win as a Red, and another that beat him in ten innings.
The night before the game in the Cincinnati suburb of Delhi Billingham did not have much time to dwell on such things. Because of the tornadoes rampaging through the area, he spent the night sleeping on the floor of his "family" room in the basement. At about three o'clock that afternoon the rain had begun falling, turning soon into hail, with the hailstones getting larger, first the size of marbles, then golf balls. Billingham said that he'd never heard anything quite like the roar and smack of hail hitting the cars on the street outside. He picked up one in his front yard—though he could hardly believe it—that was twice the size of a golf ball. A neighbor called to say that a tornado had been seen over by the airport, five or six miles away. But then the weather cleared slightly and Billingham went up to his bedroom to take a nap—the Aaron confrontation the next day just barely on the edge of his consciousness and making him yawn. Still, he was somewhat uneasy about the weather. He looked out his bedroom window and on the horizon he saw a huge cloud, ink black, "kind of blowing in a circle."
Billingham had never seen a tornado. He was not sure that this was one. But then, as he ran down and stood in his yard with his wife, the cloud, ugly enough but not especially frightening, suddenly began to disappear, revealing in its place, like a sort of unveiling, the huge funnel of the tornado.
Moving somewhat erratically about five or six miles away it lasted about 15 minutes or so, finally drawing its funnel up into itself.
Billingham never actually heard the tornado itself but the winds in Delhi were hard, and very gusty, and the shingles of one house down the street began tearing off the roof. Upstairs Billingham let his father sleep. He describes him as a very nervous and uneasy person, given that day to fretting about Aaron and how his son was going to do against him, and there was no need to compound matters by introducing the sight of a tornado funnel to him. They woke him up later on when it was evening; he was hard to keep calm; the tornado warnings were still on, and people in the neighborhood sat on their porches, looking up at the sky.
Billingham slept on a mattress on the floor that night. At dawn, he took his pillow and crept upstairs to get a few more hours' sleep. The tornado warnings had been lifted and the day was beautiful, with a sort of snapping, cleansing wind blowing out of the southwest—a wind that would give a lift to anything Aaron hit toward left field in Riverfront Stadium.
In the Billingham household there continued to be almost no talk about Aaron. His father, looking at the faces around the breakfast table, said that he had heard there had been earthquakes around the area. He got on the subject of Aaron only once, and Billingham said, "Dad, just cool it. I'm going out there to do my best. If I have a bad day, please don't get upset about it."
He got to the ballpark about ten thirty. The only damage he could see from the tornado was four telephone poles which were down by the road along the river. As he walked into the stadium he began to get the flutters for the first time.
On occasion, as Henry Aaron sits in the Braves' dugout, he takes off his baseball cap and holds it close against his face. He moves it around until he is able to peer through one of the ventholes in the crown of the cap at the opposing pitcher on the mound. The practice, like focusing through a telescope, serves to isolate the pitcher, setting him apart in a round frame so that Aaron can scrutinize him and decide how he will deal with him once he reaches the plate.
The thought process he goes through during this is to decide what sort of pitch during his stand at the plate he will almost surely see… engraving this possibility in his mind's eye so that when the pitch comes (almost as if dictating what he wants) he can truly rip at it. Home-run hitters must invariably be "guessers," since their craft depends on seeing a pitch come down that they expect—so they have time to generate a powerful swing. More than one pitcher has said that Aaron seems to hop on a pitch as if he had called for it. Ron Perranoski, an ex-Dodger relief pitcher who in his first six seasons against Aaron held him to an .812 average (13 for 16), once said: "He not only knows what the pitch will be, but where it will be."
Aaron describes his mental preparation as a process of elimination. "Suppose a pitcher has three good pitches—a fastball, a curve, and a slider. What I do, after a lot of consideration and analyzing and studying, is to eliminate two of those pitches, since it's impossible against a good pitcher to keep all three possibilities on my mind at the plate. So in getting rid of two, for example, I convince myself that I'm going to get a fastball down low. When it comes, I'm ready. Now I can have guessed wrong, and if I've set my mind for a fastball it's hard to do much with a curve, short of nibbling it out over the infield. But the chances are that I'll eventually get what I'm looking for."
The procedure of "guessing" has many variants. Roger Maris, for one, went up to the plate always self-prepared to hit a fastball, feeling that he was quick enough to adjust to a different sort of pitch as it flew toward the plate. Most "guess" hitters play a cat-and-mouse game with the pitcher as the count progresses. What distinguishes Aaron's system is that once he makes up his mind what he will see during a time at bat he never deviates. He has disciplined himself to sit and wait for one sort of pitch whatever the situation.
One might suppose that a pitcher with a large repertoire of stuff would trouble Aaron—and that indeed turns out to be the case. He shakes his head when he thinks of Juan Marichal. "When he's at the prime of his game he throws a good fastball, a good screwball, a good changeup, a good slider, a good you-have-it… and obviously the elimination system can't work; you can't throw out five or six different pitches in the hope of seeing one; the odds of seeing it would be too much against the batter."
What to do against a Marichal then? "It's an extra challenge," Aaron says. "I've just got to tune up my bat a little higher. It's a question of confidence, knowing that the pitcher cannot get me out four times without me hitting the ball sharply somewhere."
It is this confrontation between pitcher and hitter that fascinates Aaron, and indeed it is what he likes best about baseball—what he calls "that damn good guessing game."
Obviously there have been bad times. His manager in the mid-1950s, Fred Haney, was thinking of benching him against Don Drysdale, who was giving him such fits in their early confrontations. "I had a psychological block going there. Drysdale was throwing from way out by third base with that sidearm motion of his, and he was mean, and it was hard to hang in there, knowing how mean he was; I had an awful lot of respect for him."
Haney finally decided to stick with Aaron, who fortuitously stroked the triple in Milwaukee, his first hit off Drysdale, which both pitcher and batter have remembered with such clarity since it established a balance of mutual respect.
"So much of it has to do with concentration," Aaron explained to me. "On the day of a night game I begin concentrating at four in the afternoon. Just before I go to bat, from the on-deck circle, I can hear my little girl—she's 12 now—calling from the stands, 'Hey, Daddy! Hey, Daddy!' After the game she says to me, 'Hey, you never look around, Daddy, to wave.' Well, sometimes I look at her, I can't help it, but not too often. I'm looking at the pitcher. I'm thinking very hard about him."
His discipline is so extreme that not only does Aaron not hear anything when he gets to the plate, simply sealed in his vacuum of concentration, but his habits are so strictly adhered to that over the years he has never seen one of his home runs land in the stands. He is too busy getting down the first-base line.
I said I couldn't believe him. I must have sounded petulant about it because his brown eyes looked at me quickly.
"What I mean is," I said, "that I can't imagine denying oneself the pleasure of seeing the results of something like that. I mean it's like finishing a painting with one grand stroke of the brush and not stepping back to look at it."
I knew that most players do watch the home runs drop, at least the long ones, dawdling just out of the batter's box on that slow trot, the head turned. In the films of Bobby Thomson's Miracle home run in 1951 against the Dodgers in the play-offs at the Polo Grounds, it is quite apparent, his face in profile, that he glories in the drive going in; in fact, he does a small hop of delight halfway down the first-base line.
"Well, that's not what I'm supposed to do," Aaron was saying. "I've seen guys miss first base looking to see where the ball went. My job is to get down to first base and touch it. Looking at the ball going over the fence isn't going to help. I don't even look at the home runs in batting practice. No sense to break a good habit."
The odd thing about Aaron's attitude at the plate is that there is nothing to suggest any such intensity of purpose. His approach is slow and lackadaisical. He was called "Snowshoes" for a time by his teammates for the way he sort of pushes himself along. He carries his batting helmet on his way, holding two bats in the other hand. He stares out at the pitcher. He drops the extra bat. Then, just out of the batter's box, resting his bat on the ground with the handle end balanced against his thighs, he uses both hands to jostle the helmet correctly into position. He steps into the box. Even here there is no indication of the kinetic possibility—none of the ferocious tamping of his spikes to get a good toehold that one remembers of Willie Mays, say, and the quick switching of his bat back and forth as he waits. Aaron steps into the batter's box as if he were going to sit down in it somewhere. His attitude is such that Robin Roberts, the Phillies pitcher, once explained, "That's why you can't fool Aaron. He falls asleep between pitches."
Jim Brosnan, ex-pitcher and author of the fine baseball chronicle The Long Season,
- "Plimpton's One For the Record is another in his series of thinking man's books about sports ... Plimpton's crisp chronological reportorial job is a pleasure.... I found Plimpton's enthusiastic pursuit of this modest moment in history infectious."—Los Angeles Times
"Plimpton's account of the home run quest proves to be well worth the reading, even for people who thought Babe Ruth was a candy bar and Aaron a biblical prophet. Writing with his usual grace and attention to the small but significant detail, Plimpton makes it all seem much fresher than when it was happening." —Chicago Daily News Service
- "A delight--more entertaining, if possible, than I remembered... the reader leaves George Plimpton's wide world of sports with deep reluctance.... His prose is as elegant and seemingly effortless as Ted Williams's swing or an Arnold Palmer iron shot.... His teammates recede--like the old baseball players vanishing into the cornfield in Field of Dreams, taking their magical world with them but living on in fond memory."—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
- "Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton's books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era."—Nathaniel Rich, New York Review of Books
- On Sale
- Apr 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown and Company