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Celebrating a baseball legend

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

April 8 is not a state holiday, but it should be.

Nearly 50 years ago on a pleasant spring evening, it was a standing-room only crowd at Fulton County Stadium, and everyone was hoping to see history made.

The fans weren’t disappointed.

Henry Aaron stepped to the plate, and as he’d done so often during his fabled career, he launched a pitch deep into the night and watched as the ball sailed over the outfield fence.

This wasn’t just another home run, though.

It was number 715, which made Hammerin’ Hank the game’s all-time home-run leader, passing another of the game’s iconic figures, Babe Ruth.

Barry Bonds has since passed Aaron, but to many there’s a big fat asterisk next to his name in the record books.

To me, and to so many, Aaron was, is, and will always be the true home-run king.

If you get a chance, go to YouTube and watch the replay of Aaron’s record-breaking home run with the great Vin Scully doing the call for the Dodgers’ broadcast.

It still gives me chills.

The legendary Scully summed the moment up perfectly.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Scully said in that smooth, comforting voice that has been calling games for more than six decades. “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.”

It’s one of the most iconic moments in the history of sports, and Aaron handled that night and every situation throughout his storied career with such grace and dignity, despite the rampant racism he faced as he chased down Ruth.

What should have been a joyous time in Aaron’s life was instead filled with fear not so much for himself, but for his family.

“It brings back a very foul taste in my mouth,” Aaron recalled a few years ago. “I had to send my kids to private school. My daughter, who was in college at the time, couldn’t go out of the dorms. She was threatened with letters all the time. It was a horrible moment for me to try to break the record, really. The police were saying all of these probably are crank letters, but some of them maybe were for real. The team stayed at one hotel and I stayed at another. I sometimes had to sleep in the ballpark by myself. I had to slip out of back doors of ballparks.”

After hitting 40 home runs in 1973, Aaron had 713 home runs, leaving him two shy of the record.

That gave Aaron an entire offseason to be on the receiving end of the hate and racism.

“I didn’t expect it to be that harsh, really,” Aaron said. “I thought I was just playing baseball and bringing a little joy for somebody to come to the ballpark and have fun with me hitting a home run.”

I was too young to enjoy Aaron’s career, but I came to have such a great appreciation and respect for him over the years.

I met him once.

It was at a Savannah Braves game in the late 70s, and Aaron, who became an executive with the organization after retiring, walked onto the field and took some swings, sending a fair share of balls over the left-field wall.

Aaron later signed autographs and greeted the fans at Grayson Stadium, and he did so with a smile and a warmth that puts everyone who meets him at ease.

Over the years Aaron has become one of the game’s truly iconic and treasured figures, and listening him to talk baseball is such a treat.

Where Aaron ranks among the all-time greats is debatable, but he has to be in the top five of anyone’s list (he’s number one on mine).

The numbers tell the story.

Aaron is third all-time in hits (3,771), second in home runs (755), and first in RBIs (2,297) and extra-base hits (1,477), and he also owns the record for most seasons with at least 30 home runs (15).

He also had a career batting average of .305, and he finished with more walks than strikeouts.

In a sport that values consistency, no one did it better for a longer period of time than Aaron.

Beyond the statistics, the way Aaron has lived his life has been absolutely inspirational, and his Chasing the Dream Foundation has helped so many.

I usually cringe when athletes are referred to as heroes, but when it comes to Aaron, I’m OK with it.

He absolutely is a hero, and a legend, and I’d like to offer a heart-felt thank you to Mr. Aaron for everything he has done on and off the diamond.

Long live the King.