Home sports Despite hate mail, threats, Hank Aaron ‘was never scared.’ Behind the scenes…

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Despite hate mail, threats, Hank Aaron ‘was never scared.’ Behind the scenes…

by ace
Despite hate mail, threats, Hank Aaron 'was never scared.' Behind the scenes...

They have been best friends for half a century, and on a day when baseball celebrates one of its most glorious moments, the three will celebrate life.

46 years ago, on April 8, 1974, when Ralph Garr was sitting in the Braves' hideout, Dusty Baker was kneeling in the circle of the deck and Hank Aaron was walking towards the house plate.

"Hey, I'm going to get this over with," Aaron said to Baker. "Now!"

Two shots later, Aaron spun, the ball fired over the left central field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County stadium and a nation roared with joy, with Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully making the call heard around the world.

"What a wonderful time for baseball," Scully said on the broadcast. "What a wonderful time for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a wonderful time for the country and the world."

"A black man is being applauded standing in the deep south for breaking a baseball idol record of all time."

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Henry Aaron became the king of all time in baseball with his 715th, passing Babe Ruth, and while baseball celebrated the feat, Baker and Garr saw the tremendous burden finally lifted from their mentor's shoulders.

The hate mail slowed down. Death threats have stopped coming. The fear dissipated.

"Dusty and I sat next to Hank on the bench all the time and he kept walking away from us," Garr told USA TODAY Sports at his Houston home. "He was sliding this way, then the other, but we wanted to be with him, as we always were. He would receive these threats, but he never mentioned them to us at the stadium. Never.

"He didn't tell us what was going on. He kept everything inside. & # 39; & # 39;

Aaron didn't share his hate mail, but when he sat in front of his closet reading a letter, crumpled it into a ball and fired, Baker and Garr knew something was wrong.

"As close as we were, he never informed us," said Baker at his home in Sacramento. "But he didn't have to tell us. I saw him dropping the letter on the floor, he went to the training room and I took it 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 threatening letter, threatening to murder Aaron. The writer warned Aaron that he would be 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.

"Ralph and I were scared to death," said Baker. "We kept looking for the guy in the red coat the whole game. Hank acted like he didn't bother him. He didn't even flinch. But I know there was a lot of pain. But he used that as a motivation. & # 39; & # 39;

Now, on the anniversary of Aaron's 715th home run, Baker and Garr will reminisce again, extolling the virtues of a man who was not only one of the best ball players in history, but one of the greatest and kindest gentlemen they have ever found.

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"You can argue whether or not there was a better player than Hank, but there can be no better human being," said Garr. "Lord, mercy, Jesus, it is not possible to have a better human being".

The three met two months ago in Atlanta, celebrating Aaron's 86th birthday, talking about the old days, reminding Aaron what he meant to them during their time together.

Garr, raised in Ruston, Louisiana, was a college student from Grambling State, proud to be summoned by the Braves. Baker, a high school boy from Riverside, California, was deeply disappointed to be selected by Atlanta.

"I didn't want to go play in the south," said Baker. "I was scared because you heard all the stories in the south. There were places I couldn't eat. Places I knew I didn't belong in. It was never like that in California. & # 39; & # 39;

Garr said, “I think they brought us together to look after Dusty. It was a totally different world for him to come south. "

An autographed photo of Hank Aaron and Dusty Baker.

Despite the racism and hatred they encountered, instead of letting bitterness eat into their souls, they were reunited with the right man, at the right time, entering their lives.

It was Aaron who protected them, helping them to become young men, teaching them to be strong, turning hatred into inspiration and helping them to be models in their communities.

"He's the most instrumental influence of my life, outside of my father," said Baker. "I remember Hank promising my mom that if I signed with the Braves, he would take care of me (like) if I were his son. He promised my mom that he would make me go to church, make me go to church. bed in time and would always take care of me. "

Aaron did this and much, much more.

Garr and Baker met constantly in Aaron's room during spring training and on trips, talking and eating together. They met the country's most powerful civil rights leaders through Aaron, from Jesse Jackson to Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. They met Jimmy Carter, who would later become president.

"People always thought Hank was crazy, and this and that," said Baker, "but no, he was as honest as the day was over. He hated dishonest people. And he hated cheaters."

Said Garr, who lived with Aaron for several years: “The only time that Hank would be mad at you is if he thought you were disrespecting the game. He didn't like it one bit. "

Together, friendship and love culminated on the night of April 8, 1974, when Aaron returned home. Garr greeted him a moment before reaching the plate, took his hand and followed him as Baker hugged him.

They got together for a quick celebration at the club that night and the rest of the season together. Garr won the batting title with an average of 0.335, Baker hit 21 players and Aaron scored 20 – the lowest number since the debut season.

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

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

Today, 74-year-old Garr is a Scout for the Braves, hired by Aaron when he was the farm's director. Baker, 70, is the manager of Astros, 137 wins out of 2,000. And Aaron, confined to a wheelchair, was recently honored for his philanthropic efforts at Atlanta Technical College, which named his academic complex in his honor.

"The times that the three of us have spent together over the years, I would not trade for the world," said Garr. "Hank meant everything to me and Dusty. I mean, he means a lot to a lot of people. He is still educating people with his foundation and when he is gone, he will be remembered forever.

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

"But as good as Hank Aaron was as a ball player, he is a much better man."

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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