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  • Writer's pictureJoe Capozzi

50 years ago, the Hank Aaron ‘zoo’ invaded WPB before final assault on Babe Ruth's home run record

Updated: Apr 1


Photo illustration via Newspapers.com, Miami Herald, March 7, 1974

FIFTY YEARS AGO, on one of the final days of spring training, Henry Aaron was struck in the head by a baseball at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium.


At the time, the Atlanta Braves slugger was the biggest story in sports — perhaps the biggest story, period, except for Watergate — and the focus of West Palm Beach’s most electrifying spring since the Braves started training there in 1963. 


Aaron ended the 1973 season with 713 career home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth’s once-hallowed record. A new record would have to wait until 1974. And for Aaron and the rest of the baseball world, the anticipation made for a long winter. 


When the Braves finally arrived in West Palm Beach for spring camp in February 1974, Aaron received a reception fit for a soon-to-be home run king. He was trailed by packs of reporters, dogged by throngs of fans and watched over by two personal security guards. 


But now, on March 29, just days from the start of the regular season, Hammerin’ Hank was reaching for his forehead and stumbling backward. He’d been standing next to the batting cage when teammate Davey Johnson fouled a ball into the netting. The ball struck Aaron just above the left eye, stunning the slugger for a few anxious moments. 


Atlanta Journal, March 30, 1974

According to press reports that began “Hank Aaron narrowly escaped serious injury …,’’ a walnut-size knot appeared on his head. But that’s as bad as it got. Other than that nasty welt, the errant ball “did no serious damage,’’ according to reports.  


The Braves broke camp a few days later, and on April 8, before a record crowd of 53,775 in Atlanta, Aaron connected off Dodgers lefty Al Downing for his record-breaking 715th home run. 


“I’m glad it happened,’’ he said the next day, “but I’m glad it’s over.’’


The errant foul ball merited only a brief mention in newspapers, but it sounded an anxious end to an exhilarating spring in West Palm Beach. The excitement would be repeated 24 years later, just up the road in Jupiter, when Mark McGwire arrived at Roger Dean Stadium in 1998 seven months before breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.


 

Miami Herald, Feb. 28, 1974 via Newspapers.com

Aaron’s final assault on Ruth’s record began in an era long before social media and the 24-hour news cycle. But it brought the 1974 equivalent of a media circus to Municipal Stadium.  


“It’s going to be a zoo, a real zoo,’’ Don Davidson, the Braves’ traveling secretary, told Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope a few weeks before camp opened.   


At Municipal Stadium, the Braves planned to set aside “a special area for Henry and the media folks. We’ll have maybe an hour after batting practice every day so they can all get at Henry without messing up the rest of the ballclub,’’ Davidson said.


At the Tee Pee Room, Municipal Stadium’s press lounge, operators made plans to bring in extra food and extend the lunch-serving hours to accommodate the masses. 


“I expect that we'll have guys standing up all around the room eating their lunch because there will be no place to sit,’’ lounge manager Elmer Dodd, 82, told a reporter.  


But after camp opened, the media presence off Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard only swelled. The Braves moved Aaron’s locker into the coaches locker room to accommodate the growing numbers of scribes and cameras.


Among the notable reporters and media outlets who came to town: Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, George Plimpton, Jim Bouton, Sports Illustrated, TIME magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, along with national baseball writers.


“No matter where he went, the cameras and pens and mikes were not far behind him,’’ read an Atlanta Journal story on Feb. 28. “He came out of the clubhouse and into the dugout and there they were. He trotted to right field to take pre-practice calisthenics and there they were. He stood by the batting cage and the cameras whirred. He took three turns hitting and the cameras rolled some more. ... And it's going to get worse.’’


Miami Herald, Feb. 28, 1974 via Newspapers.com

Aaron did his best to be composed and polite, answering just about every question, sometimes in between drags from a cigarette.


“It's going to be different this spring,  yes, but I can’t let it bother me. I have a job to do and I’m going to do it. I know what I have to do,’’ he said. 


Another day, he repeated a reporter’s question: “Does the Babe haunt me? No. Ghosts don't bother me,’’ he said. “I was young and black and when I started swinging a bat I'd heard his name but I didn't know how many homers he’d hit.’’

 

It might not have been fun for Aaron, but it brought plenty of excitement to Municipal Stadium.


The city of West Palm Beach noted the home run chase in a full page ad in The Palm Beach Post on Jan. 27. And nearly two months later, the main street to the ballpark was renamed Hank Aaron Drive during a pregame ceremony. 



By the time Grapefruit League games started, advanced ticket sales were up 30 percent and advertising revenue for daily scorebooks sold to fans was up 15 percent.


The Braves ordered 4,750 tickets printed per game, 1,000 more than the previous year. And the stadium operators doubled from four to eight the number of ushers to handle crowds. 


In the run-up to 1974, Aaron received racist letters and death threats from people angry that a Black man was about to conquer the great Babe Ruth's record. 


To ensure Aaron’s safety that spring, the Braves brought two security guards. Sgt. Calvin Wardlaw, an off-duty Atlanta police detective, was hired to serve as a bodyguard. George Andrews, a retired New York City cop living in Lantana, guarded the clubhouse door and made sure visitors had proper credentials.


“Our first concern is for Hank’s safety and security,’’ Pete Skorput, the Braves spring training coordinator, told reporters.


Miami Herald March 9, 1974 via Newspapers.com

Controversy dogged Aaron in the early days of camp after the Braves announced he would sit out the first three games of the season in Cincinnati. The Braves wanted Aaron to set the record in front of their hometown fans in Atlanta, during the team’s next series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 


But when baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voiced disapproval of that idea, the Braves reluctantly agreed to play Aaron in Cincinnati, where he would hit No. 714 in his first at-bat of the season. (Aaron did not play in the next two games.) 


A day after Kuhn’s ruling, Aaron was honored at a West Palm Beach Jaycees charity dinner where the guest speaker was Happy Chandler, a former Kentucky governor, U.S. senator and commissioner of baseball. 


The slugger couldn’t resist cracking a joke.


“Of all his titles, the one that most impresses me is commissioner,’’ Aaron said, turning to Chandler in front of more than 700 people at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. “It’s a hell of a job and when we get a decision like the one that was just made, we need you back.’’ 


Proceeds from the $12.50-a plate banquet helped a West Palm Beach couple pay for their infant daughter’s heart operation. Aaron was only too happy to accommodate the crowd, signing autographs at his table while his meal went cold. 


Miami Herald, March 8, 1974 via Newspapers.com


“I've been coming to West Palm Beach for a number of years and I've made a lot of friends here. No matter how many times it's happened, it's still a great honor when someone sets aside a night for you,’’ he said to the crowd.


“I know I'm in a unique position being two home runs behind Babe Ruth's record. But regardless of what anyone thinks, I’ve never gone to the plate trying to hit home runs. While I'm out there I've got one purpose – trying to help my team win a championship. One thing I'm very proud of is that I have been able to do it with over a .300 average for 19 years. So nobody can say the only thing that Henry Aaron is interested in is home runs.’’ 


When he connected for his first spring home run on March 13, the Miami Herald offered a whimsical headline: “Aaron Raps No. 714, But Just For Practice.’’ 



On March 25, Aaron connected for his second spring home run, 375 feet over the left field fence at Municipal Stadium.


“Heck, get me that ball. That’s 715 and it's probably worth $10,000,’’ joked the Rangers pitcher who served up the blast, West Palm Beach native Pete Broberg, who would return to town after his baseball career to open a respected law practice


Aaron came into that game with just four hits in 22 at-bats, good for a paltry .122 batting average and speculation the pressure of the home-run chase was getting to him.


“Statistics in spring training don’t worry me,’’ he said after hitting the homer. “I'm swinging the bat as well as I know how.’’ 


And all spring, the Ruth questions never stopped. 


“Look, he hit 714 and I'll probably hit more,'' he told reporters, "but when somebody comes along to challenge us both, black or white, I'll be rooting for him.’’


 

Miami Herald, March 3, 1974, via Newspapers.com

Once Aaron passed the Babe in April, his production slowed. He was 40 when the ‘74 season started and he finished the year with 20 home runs, half his 1973 total. 


He retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs, a record that stood until Aug. 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th. 


Aaron eventually returned to West Palm Beach with his wife, Billye. They lived in a home overlooking Lake Mangonia and were active in the community. He spoke at banquets to honor teachers. He joined then-West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel in efforts to revitalize Coleman Park, where Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson once played. 


He died in 2021. Many fans still consider him the legitimate home run king, even though Bonds, who admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs during his career, retired after the 2007 season with 762 home runs.  




In the final years of his life, Aaron did his best to avoid commenting on the Bonds controversy.


"All I went through chasing Babe Ruth's record ... that took a piece of me," he told a Palm Beach Post reporter in 2007. "I guess that's why I don't like to rehash all of that."


Not long after he passed Ruth, West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium’s address was changed to 755 Hank Aaron Drive. Today, the ballpark is long gone, replaced by a Home Depot a few years after the 1997 season, but the road is still called Hank Aaron Drive.


The Braves now play in North Port on Florida’s southwest coast. Two teams hold spring training in West Palm Beach: the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals share CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches, about five miles northwest of where Municipal Stadium once stood. 


Fifty years ago, Municipal Stadium was not only the center of spring training in Palm Beach County, it was the focus of the baseball world. And for Aaron, baseball’s biggest star, there was no escaping the spotlight.


“You can't imagine the relief I'll feel when the thing is finally over and done with,’’ Aaron told Braves beat writer Frank Hyland of the Atlanta Journal in an interview from the slugger's apartment a few blocks from Municipal Stadium.


“This record has changed my whole life and my family life and I can hardly wait until it’s over.’’ 



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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.









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