Sun, Jul 15, 2007 - Page 24 News List

Aaron remembers quest for MLB home run record


Hank Aaron chased Major League Baseball's career home run record in 1973 to a steady soundtrack of racist taunts and catcalls. Some fans booed him from the outfield bleachers. Others challenged him to fights.

And that was just at his home games in Atlanta.

Road games actually were a respite for Aaron, who was mostly cheered and honored away from Georgia as he closed in on Babe Ruth's mark. He played in front of thousands of empty seats and a handful of haters in Atlanta until he got within one homer of the record.

More than 33 years later, Barry Bonds faces his own matrix of pressures, prejudices and criticism as he closes in on Aaron's 755 career homers. The home crowd greets him nightly with adulation, but he is the most reviled man in whatever city he visits.

The written death threats and insults hurled at Aaron were a result of his pivotal role in the racial politics of the US South. Bonds' perils stem from the specter of doping abuse that has surrounded his last decade in the majors -- as well as Bonds' career-long arrogance and seeming indifference to everyone but himself.

But neither slugger's quest for one of MLB's most hallowed records has been an entirely pleasant.

Aaron acknowledged he barely survived his chase with his sanity and love of baseball intact. He smoked and fretted during semi-sleepless nights in lonely hotels under fake names, and he occasionally couldn't help thinking about everything that could go wrong in a stadium full of people each night -- especially after receiving the death threats.

The threats on Aaron's life began to arrive in earnest in the early days of the chase, both by mail and phone. As he got closer, they steadily increased in numbers and specificity -- everything from the city and the time purported assassins would hit, right down to what the killer would be wearing.

Security personnel watched over Aaron from the stands, including plainclothes officers who sat in the outfield stands behind Aaron, watching to see whether one of the racist hecklers would take action.

During spring training, Bonds also said he has received threats on his life, but hasn't extensively discussed it since then. He has traveled with a security detail for much of the season, and his family also is protected during games.

Though MLB and the Giants understandably have declined to describe their security precautions around Bonds, extra personnel can be spotted in the stands and off the field wherever San Francisco plays.

But just as Aaron's security learned when two fans got onto the field to congratulate him during his 715th home-run trot, no player is completely safe.

One inning before Bonds hit his 750th career homer at home against Arizona, a fan jumped out of the stands and ran toward Bonds -- he only wanted to shake the slugger's hand before being arrested.

Once Aaron's avalanche of hate mail became public, he received a national groundswell of support. Ruth's widow, Claire, gave her public support to Aaron, and the Atlanta Braves had to hire a secretary, Carla Koplin, to send out thousands of form letters and photos in response to the positive mail.

That support extended to opposing fields, where fans booed their own pitchers if they walked Aaron. They gave standing ovations for most of the shots that pushed him closer to the Babe.

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