Thirty years ago, homer king hit his last
Long ball No. 755 marked the end of Aaron's run
MILWAUKEE -- At the time, it was just another day, just another home run.
Thirty years ago, July 20, 1976, the greatest home run hitter of them all, Hank Aaron, hit his last.
It was a significant moment in baseball history, but no one knew at the time. Ask a baseball fan old enough to recall where he or she was when Aaron hit No. 715 in 1974, eclipsing Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record, and the answer probably comes quickly.
But this is a story of a moment that didn't start out significantly at all. Its key characters remember so little about the actual home run it's almost as if it never happened. In fact, it took several months for anyone to realize that home run No. 755 might be notable.
It's notable now. As Giants outfielder Barry Bonds slugs his way closer and closer to Aaron's mark, Aaron's final home run is back in the spotlight 30 years after he hit it.
"Records are made to be broken," Aaron told MLB.com at the 2004 All-Star Game, when all living members of the 500-homer club gathered. "You know, I broke Babe Ruth's record. Barry can break mine. Somebody else could probably come along and break his.
"I'm not hung up on records. My career is over with, done with. I'm not going to hit any more home runs."
Repeated attempts to contact Aaron to comment on the 30th anniversary of his historic homer were unsuccessful.
None of the 10,134 fans in attendance for a midsummer game between the last-place Brewers and last-place California Angels knew on that July day in 1976 that the home run would be Aaron's last. How could they? With 76 games remaining on the schedule, it seemed impossible that the last long ball by Aaron would land only few rows past the left-field wall at Milwaukee's County Stadium.
The journey of home run No. 755 began in the way most of the 754 prior ones had.
Angels' relief pitcher Dick Drago, working in his fourth inning of relief, was starting to wear down in the seventh. After George Scott hit a two-run home run, Aaron stepped to the plate. Drago got Aaron out on a fastball in their previous at-bat, but this time, he started with a slider.
It hung. Aaron turned on it.
755. The last.
The Brewers went on to win the game, 6-2, and moved to within 18 1/2 games of the first-place Yankees in the American League East. By all standards, it was an insignificant contest and just another game in the last season of a titan of the sport, save for that one moment.
Return to Milwaukee
Flashback almost two years. The 40-year-old Aaron had just finished his ninth season in Atlanta, home of the Braves since they left Milwaukee in 1966. Aaron saw his home run production get cut in half from 40 to 20 in 1974. He wanted a change of scenery.
That's when a close friend of Aaron's and one of the owners of the Brewers at the time, Bud Selig, saw an opportunity to bring Aaron back to the place his Major League career started.
During the 1974 World Series, Selig flew down to Atlanta to make sure Aaron wanted to return to the city he spent his first 12 seasons.
"It was a long process," said Selig, now the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. "I talked with Bill Bartholomay, who was the Chairman of Braves, and I knew Hank wanted out of Atlanta. I was mostly anxious because the Brewers needed a shot in the arm."
Selig talked with Bartholomay several more times, eventually meeting him halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee to hammer out a trade. On Nov. 2, 1974, Aaron was traded from Atlanta to Milwaukee for outfielder Dave May -- an All-Star in 1973 -- and a player to be named later.
"It was a stunning deal," Selig said. "It was exciting. It was great. For Hank it was a great sense coming home. He was happy and he had really fond memories in Milwaukee. He loved Atlanta, but for him it was like coming home."
For 19-year-old Brewers shortstop Robin Yount, the deal was stunning as well. Two years prior, Yount was in a high school science classroom. Now, he would be in the same lineup as a future Hall of Famer.
"When I first heard we were getting Henry Aaron, I mean, Hank was going to be on our team," Yount said. "I thought, 'Wow, I get to play with the home run king!' I thought this was going to be pretty cool, and it was."
The anticipation for Aaron's return to Milwaukee built for months, climaxing in an electric Opening Day to start the 1975 season.
Selig and Aaron, sitting in the dugout like two friends about to embark on a long journey, could only think of one thing to say as a crowd of 48,160 filed into the stadium.
"He just looked at me and I looked at him and he just said, 'Wow,' and I said the same thing," Selig remembered. "It was an emotional day."
As Aaron took to the field, the sounds of "Hello, Dolly" rang in the air, only the words had been changed to "Hello, Hank." It was all part of "Welcome Home, Henry" day, in which Milwaukee defeated Cleveland, 6-2, in Aaron's return.
The return of Aaron was the prescription the ailing Brewers needed in attendance, as they set a record with over 1.2 million fans that season. On the field, though, it was clear Aaron's best days were behind him. The 41-year-old slugger managed to hit only .234, with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs in his first season back. In 1976, his statistics didn't get any better, with Aaron hitting .229.
His numbers pale in comparison with the influence Aaron wielded over the Brewers' young core of Yount, Don Money, Jim Gantner and especially outfielder Gorman Thomas.
Thomas, a young but brash player who would later become one of the most beloved Brewers of all time, said it was easy to see the influence Aaron had on his career.
"He's the classiest guy I think I ever met in baseball," said Thomas, who still lives in Milwaukee and serves as a sort of club ambassador. "He would tell me how a guy would pitch me, or little tells that the pitcher was doing that would indicate what he would throw. Off the field he's quiet, always caries himself with class. This man is nothing but class."
Although Aaron was generally a quiet leader in his final two seasons in Milwaukee, his sense of humor didn't get lost on the young team, or a man never shy in telling a story like Thomas.
"I actually played a couple of games with him in the outfield," Thomas said. "He called timeout and he said 'Gorman, you got line-to-line out here today, both gaps. It's all your responsibility.' I thought it was funny as hell."
Yount said it was refreshing to see Aaron carry himself the way he did, which then rubbed off on the young shortstop.
"I learned so much about how to be a person and how to deal with everything," Yount said. "He made you feel like baseball wasn't all that big a deal. It's what we do. It was really neat to see the greatest player of our time act like that. That's what I appreciated the most about him."
Six years after Aaron retired, Yount and Thomas were two of the major reasons why the Brewers advanced all the way to the 1982 World Series, the lone Series appearance in franchise history. Both credited Aaron's influence as a reason why they were so successful on and off the field.
A legend hangs 'em up
With Aaron's skills in obvious decline, he decided to retire after the 1976 season and on Oct. 3, Aaron suited up for the final time. His last-at bat came in the sixth inning, and somehow Aaron legged out an infield single. On the play, he also drove in his 2,297th and final run, another all-time record.
Brewers manager Alex Grammas then sent in the rookie infielder Gantner to pinch-run. Aaron took the first steps toward retirement to a standing ovation. He walked off the field as the last Negro Leagues player to also play in the Major Leagues.
"It's an amazing arc," said Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame. "His experience encompasses the hopes of so many other black baseball players. It's just an amazing story to a lot of people if you think.
"At that period you're starting to see this arc of black baseball players being involved in baseball. After that, the numbers start to slowly go down. It marked the end of an era in baseball history that was really important."
Years after Aaron's retirement, Drago realized he had the dubious distinction of being the man who gave up Aaron's last home run.
"It came up somewhere in some trivia thing or something I read," Drago said. "After that I kind of used it as trivia and nobody knew the answer [even though] I was asking the question."
If Bonds passes Aaron's mark, someone else will be a trivia answer.
John Sahly is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.