ATLANTA — Understated in his words, Henry Aaron let the Braves make all the fuss.
On the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th career home run, which broke Babe Ruth’s record, the Atlanta Braves and the city honored the slugger with a pre-game ceremony at Turner Field before the team’s home opener against the New York Mets. Aaron broke Ruth’s record on April 8, 1974.
“Thank you for all the kindness over the many years,” Aaron told the still filling Turner Field.
Aaron, who required a walker after breaking his hip in January, spoke briefly, centering his short remarks around the fans and his wife, Billye.
“I gave baseball all I had,” said Aaron, a native of Mobile, Ala., “everything, every ounce to make you, the fans, appreciate me more.
“What you stand for, the same thing you did 40 years ago, you were here cheering for me then and you are here cheering for me tonight.”
Emceed by former Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren, the ceremony included remarks from Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, chairman emeritus Bill Bartholomay and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Also present were former teammates of Aaron including Phil Niekro, Dusty Baker, Marty Perez, Ron Reed and Tom House, the reliever who caught No. 715 in the Braves bullpen. Also there was Al Downing, the Dodgers pitcher who surrendered the record-breaking hit. Downing also threw out the ceremonial first pitch to open the game.
As the ceremony began, selected fans began piling into the outfield, each holding a baseball shaped placard with a number and date signifying each of Aaron’s 715 home runs, a stunning visualization of the career feet, which eventually reached 755.
The remarks from McGuirk and Van Wieren carried veiled mentions of Barry Bonds surpassing Aaron’s home run mark under a cloud of performance enhancing drugs and drew plenty of cheers.
“You have always done it right,” McGuirk said. “You set the home run mark the old fashioned way. You will always be the home run king of all time.”
Bartholomay, calling Aaron “the franchise,” made mention of the 60 years Aaron has spent representing the team first as a player and now in retirement.
Following Aaron’s remarks, he was presented with jerseys from teams across Atlanta and Georgia, a nod to his impact beyond baseball. Teams honoring Aaron included the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Dream, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, Emory, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta.
“I believe Henry Aaron was ideally suited to become Babe Ruth’s heir,” Selig said. “He is the living embodiment of the American spirit.”