ATLANTA — When Hank Aaron launched Al Downing's pitch over the wall in left-center field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium at 9:07 p.m. 40 years ago Tuesday, he did more than break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. He helped bring a city and a region together.
Born and raised in Mobile, Ala., Aaron had grown up in the segregated South and had seen a lot of ugliness. Even as he chased Ruth's record of 714 home runs, he faced threats and intimidation from those who didn't want to see him break the record.
But Aaron's humble manner and hard work won over all but the most bigoted, and homer No. 715 ultimately was celebrated universally by baseball fans.
"Hank is one of the big reasons Atlanta became the city it did," former Braves broadcaster Pete van Wieren said following a ceremony Tuesday honoring the 40th anniversary of Aaron's record-breaking home run. "Baseball came here, and it was the first time baseball had been in the South, and it was in a time when it was tough for him because of the racial situation. And he kind of united this city. He was the hero right from the get-go.
"And of course for him to have the moment he had 40 years ago is one of the most memorable moments in the game."
The Braves pulled out all the stops to celebrate on Tuesday. Downing was at Turner Field to commemorate the most famous fastball over the plate ever thrown, along with Tom House, the former Braves relief pitcher who caught the famous home run ball in the Atlanta bullpen that night. Crowding the outfield were 715 fans carrying numbered baseball-shaped cutouts -- one for each shot "The Hammer" hit from April 23, 1954, to April 8, 1974.
But the chief dignitary in Atlanta on Tuesday was the man who likely has watched Aaron the longest. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig owned stock in the Milwaukee Braves when Aaron's career began and was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, where Aaron finished his playing days.
"When you think back it was an amazing thing that happened here 40 years ago," Selig said. "I saw him play his first game in Milwaukee in 1954 and his last game in Milwaukee in 1976. When you look at his stats and everything he did -- he played 23 years and not a day on the disabled list.
"I was in Milwaukee [when Aaron hit No. 715] -- I had tried to get down here and couldn't -- watching the game on television. When he hit it, I couldn't help but think of all the things he had done."
Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs -- not counting his five homers with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues in 1952 -- and he still holds the all-time RBI record at 2,297. His all-around superiority as a player is often overshadowed by the home runs.
"The shame of it is that so many of these guys today didn't get a chance to see him play," van Wieren said. "As was said on the field, he wasn't just a guy who hit home runs. He was a great hitter, period.
"You look at the doubles, the triples, the singles, and he's still the all-time RBI leader. ... There was really nothing he couldn't do on the field, and he played hard every single day."
In 2007, Aaron's home run mark was eclipsed by Barry Bonds, who officially holds the home run record at 762. But you'd be hard-pressed to convince most fans of that in Atlanta on Tuesday. Bonds' links to performance-enhancing drugs and the widespread use of steroids during the 1990s led van Wieren to call Aaron baseball's "true home run king," and more than one speaker highlighted Aaron's "dignity" and "integrity" -- less-than-subtle jabs at the widespread cheating of an era that still haunts America's pastime.
"I think obviously the steroid era had a big part in all of this, and the fact is that [Aaron] was able to do it legitimately," van Wieren said. "There are still a lot of fans that are still very very upset about the use of steroids that was so prevalent in the 90s.
"The fact that he did what he did the right way still means a lot to a lot of people."
Beyond that, Braves broadcaster and former player Brian Jordan said Aaron was an inspiration to him and an entire generation of young black athletes.
"He's a legend and an icon here in Atlanta," Jordan said. "For me as an African-American ballplayer, he was my hero growing up. The things that he was able to overcome and the obstacles that he leaped over really paved the way for African-Americans playing baseball. I just appreciate it.
"It's not just his on-the-field accomplishments, but off the field, too. That's why I started my foundation, because he's always worked with kids and helped kids reach their dreams. He's just a special man."
But what about the "special man" himself? The 80-year-old icon, hobbled by surgery to repair a broken hip over the winter, remained as gracious as ever and seemingly as appreciative of the fans as they were of him and all he has meant to Atlanta, the Braves, baseball and the nation.
"Thank you so very much for all of your kindness throughout the years," he said to an appreciative crowd, announced as a sellout at 47,144. "The game of baseball was a way that I relaxed myself for 23 years. When I played I gave it everything I had. With every ounce of my ability, I tried to make the fans appreciate me more.
"What you stand for is the same thing as 40 years ago. The fans were here then and you are here tonight, and I'm forever grateful for that."
It's all of us who are grateful for you, Hammer. Perhaps more than you'll ever know.
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.
Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...