The good, ugly and beautiful: Behind the scenes of Hank Aaron’s home run that broke Babe Ruth’s record

They have been best friends for a half-century now, and on a day when baseball commemorates one of its most glorious moments, the three will be celebrating life.

It was 46 years ago, on April 8, 1974, when Ralph Garr was sitting in the Braves’ dugout, Dusty Baker was kneeling in the on-deck circle, and Hank Aaron was walking to home plate.

“Hey, I’m going to get this over with,” Aaron told Baker. “Right now!’’

Two pitches later, Aaron swung, the ball soared over the left-center-field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and a nation roared in delight, with Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully making the call heard ’round the world.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Scully said on the telecast. “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.”

Henry Aaron became baseball’s all-time home king with his 715th, passing Babe Ruth, and while baseball celebrated the feat, Baker and Garr saw the tremendous burden finally being lifted off their mentor’s shoulders.

The hate mail slowed down. The death threats stopped coming. The fear dissipated.

“Dusty and I would sit next to Hank on the bench all of the time and he’d keep moving away from us,” Garr told USA TODAY Sports from his Houston home. “He’d slide one way, then the other, but we wanted to be by his side just like we always were. He would get these threats but never mentioned them to us at the ballpark. Never.

“He wouldn’t tell us what he was going through. He kept it all inside.’’

Aaron didn’t share his hate mail, but when he’d sit in front of his locker reading a letter, then  crumple it in a ball and storm off, Baker and Garr knew something was wrong.

“As close as we were, he would never ever let us know,” Baker said from his Sacramento home. “But he didn’t have to tell us. I would see him drop the letter on the floor, he would go to (the) training room, and I’d pick it up and read it. I couldn’t believe what was being said to him, but Hank was never scared.

“But we sure were.”

There was the ominous letter, threatening to assassinate Aaron. The writer warned Aaron that he’d be the one wearing a red coat when he pulled the trigger.  

Hank Aaron hits home run #715 to break Babe Ruth's record off Al Downing on April 8, 1974.

“Me and Ralph were scared to death,” Baker said. “We kept looking for the guy in the red coat the whole game. Hank acted like it didn’t bother him. He didn’t even flinch. But I know there was pain. A lot of pain. But he used that as motivation.’’

Now, on the anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run, Baker and Garr will reminisce again, extolling the virtues of a man who not only was one of the finest ballplayers in history but one of the greatest and kindest gentlemen they ever encountered.

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“You can argue whether or not there was a better ballplayer than Hank, but there’s no way there was a better human being,” Garr said. “Lord, Mercy, Jesus, it’s not possible to have a better human being.’’

The three of them got together two months ago in Atlanta, celebrating Aaron’s 86th birthday, talking about old times, reminding Aaron what he meant to them during their time together.

Garr, raised in Ruston, Louisiana, was a college kid out of Grambling State, proud to be drafted by the Braves. Baker, a high school kid out of Riverside, California, was bitterly disappointed to be selected by Atlanta. 

“I didn’t want to go play in the South,” Baker said. “I was scared because you heard all of the stories in the South. There were places I couldn’t eat. Places I knew I didn’t belong. It was never like that in California.’’

Said Garr: “They put us together, I think, for me to look after Dusty. It was a whole different world for him to come to the South.”

An autograph picture of Hank Aaron and Dusty Baker.

Despite the racism and hatred they each encountered, and instead of letting the bitterness erode at their soul, they were brought together with the right guy at the right time coming into their lives.

It was Aaron who protected them, helping them grow into young men, teaching them to be strong, turning the hate into inspiration and helping them be role models in their communities.

“He’s the most instrumental influence in my life, outside of my father,” Baker said. “I remember Hank promising my mom that if I signed with the Braves, he would take care of me (as) if I was his son. He promised my mom he would make me go to church, make me go to bed on time, and always look out after me.”

Aaron did that, and much, much more.

Garr and Baker constantly gathered at Aaron’s room during spring training and on road trips, talking and eating together. They met the nation’s most powerful civil rights leaders through Aaron, from Jesse Jackson to Andrew Young to Maynard Jackson to Ralph Abernathy. They met Jimmy Carter, who would later become the 39th president of the United States.

“People always thought that Hank was mad, and this and that,” Baker said, “But no, he was just as honest as the day was long. He hated dishonest people. And he hated cheaters.”

Said Garr, who roomed with Aaron for several years: “The only time Hank would get mad at you is if he thought you were disrespecting the game. He didn’t like that one bit.”

Together, their friendship and love culminated the evening of April 8, 1974, when Aaron homered. Garr greeted him the moment before he reached home plate, grabbed his hand and escorted him across as Baker hugged him.

They got together for a quick celebration in the clubhouse that evening and the rest of the season together.Garr won the batting title with a .353 average, Baker hit 21 homers and Aaron blasted 20 – his fewest since his rookie season.

The season ended, and Aaron left the Braves, returning to Milwaukee for two final seasons. Baker was traded a year later to the Dodgers, where he became an All-Star outfielder and World Series champion. And 25 days after Baker’s departure, Garr was traded to the White Sox, hitting .300 in two more seasons before retiring after 1980.

“When Hank left, we were all lost,” Baker said. “They got rid of all of us.”

Today, Garr, 74, is a scout for the Braves, hired by Aaron when he was their farm director. Baker, 70, is manager of the Astros, 137 victories from 2,000. And Aaron, confined to a wheelchair, was recently honored for his philanthropic endeavors at Atlanta Technical College, which named its academic complex in his honor.

“The times the three of us have spent together over the years, I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Garr said. “Hank has meant everything to me, and to Dusty. I mean, he means so much to so many people. He’s still educating people with his foundation, and when he’s long gone, he’ll be remembered forever.

“We will never forget the night of the homer. He was the perfect guy to break Babe Ruth’s record. Just like Jackie Robinson was the perfect guy (to break baseball’s color barrier).

“But as great as Hank Aaron was as a ballplayer, he’s a much better man.”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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