It doesn’t take long to travel from Hank Aaron to Bartolo Colon if you choose to journey through degrees of separation. Aaron, who was honored Tuesday night at Turner Field for having hit the home run many assumed would never be hit, played his final game in 1976. Colon, who was hit against only incidentally after the ceremonies for Aaron concluded, began his major league tenure in 1997. Enter their names in Baseball-Reference’s Oracle of Baseball tool and you’re no more than a Phil Niekro (’74 Brave/’87 Blue Jay) and Tony Fernandez (’87 Blue Jay/’97 Indian) away from bridging the Aaron-Colon gap.
Bartolo Colon, you may have heard, is 40 years old. That’s considered ancient in baseball circles. It was considered even more ancient in 1973, the year Colon was born, the same year Hank Aaron, 39, hit 40 home runs, the last of them his 713th in a career that stretched back to 1954. In 1954, the all-time record for most home runs by a single player in the length of a career was 714, established by Babe Ruth, who retired in 1935. When Ruth’s record was 19 years old — and Aaron was 20 — no player was closer than 180 home runs from 714. In two decades’ time, Aaron had moved to within one.
They said it couldn’t be done. It was inconceivable. Babe Ruth was Babe Ruth. 714 was sacred. Jimmie Foxx’s runner-up 534 was an impressive total, but it wasn’t even in the same state let alone county as 714. Before Aaron came along, only Foxx and Mel Ott had slugged their way past 500 home runs post-Ruth. They were revered figures, but no figure was revered as 714. Ruth had owned the home run record since July 18, 1921, when he swatted his 139th off the Tigers’ Bert Cole at Detroit’s Navin Field, surpassing Roger Connor on an all-time list that didn’t much exist before the Babe shifted into historic gear.
(By the way, you can get from Bert Cole of the 1925 Indians to Bartolo Colon of the 1999 Indians — both of whom pitched at Navin Field or, as it was known later, Tiger Stadium — in five degrees…though you’ll need six to make it from Roger Connor of the 1893 Giants.)
Ruth and 714 were synonymous. Nobody was ever going to catch either of them. Nobody pulled to within a hundred home runs of the Babe until Willie Mays hit No. 614 off Pittsburgh’s Bob Moose on June 10, 1970. At that moment, Hank Aaron had accumulated 571. Mays’s long and brilliant career, however, was at last beginning to run out of steam.
Aaron’s, however, just kept chugging along, particularly as regarded the home run. Hank never hit fewer than 24 once he fully established himself in 1955, the first of his 22 consecutive All-Star seasons. He never hit more than 45 before he became the twelfth man to hit a 400th home run (April 20, 1966) and the eighth to hit a 500th (July 14, 1968). Hits of all nature just kept on coming as Hank grew older, but it was his collection of homers that really began to gain notice in what could have been mistaken for the onset of his twilight. With No. 537 (July 30, 1969), he passed Mickey Mantle for third on the all-time list. With No. 600 (April 27, 1971), he was in territory previously reserved for only Ruth and Mays.
The quiet superstar who rose to prominence in Milwaukee and carried his steadily spectacular star to Atlanta wasn’t just on the map anymore. He was approaching the capital. At the age of 37, Aaron unleashed more power than he ever had before: 47 home runs. When that eye-popping 1971 season was over, he was up to 639, or seven behind Mays. On June 10, 1972, Henry belted No. 649, at last surpassing Willie, now of the New York Mets. Mays, 41, had a dozen homers left in him. Aaron, 38, was just getting going. Thirty-four home runs in 1972. Forty in 1973. The lifetime chart, thus, read as such:
Babe Ruth 714
Hank Aaron 713
One behind Ruth. Nobody was supposed to touch Ruth. Ruth remade the game a half-century before. Ruth was mythic. Hank Aaron? Hank Aaron was merely great. Ruth was a generation-defining character, a symbol of a nation, the personification of his times. All Aaron did was play baseball and play it better than just about anybody who’d ever played it. It turned out that if you did that for a couple of decades, it was enough to edge you toward the most famous record in all of sports.
A lunatic fringe minority spewed hatred toward Henry Aaron because he wasn’t the same color as Babe Ruth — or them. They represented a clear and present danger, yet they by no means represented the bulk of popular sentiment as 1973 moved into 1974. Despite twenty years of irrefutable excellence, America hadn’t known Hank all that well before he closed in on the Babe, but we were damn glad to see him doing what he was doing. We couldn’t wait for Opening Day 1974 and we cheered wherever we were when the second 714th home run in major league history happened on April 4 in Cincinnati.
And we who weren’t in the lunatic fringe minority stood in awe at our televisions when NBC’s Monday Night Baseball brought us to Atlanta Stadium, where Al Downing of the Dodgers threw, and 40-year-old Hank Aaron of the Braves swung, and the first 715th home run in major league history happened before our appreciative eyes.
That was April 8, 1974. Exactly forty years later, the man who hit No. 715 as the third-oldest player in the National League early in his spotlight season (and forty more thereafter) returned to within slugging distance of the same spot from whence he connected with history and shoved Babe Ruth into second place. He had been invited to be appreciated some more. Hank Aaron was 80 this Tuesday night in Atlanta in 2014. But he was still Hank Aaron. Still merely great. Still the man who played baseball and played it better than just about anybody who’d ever played it — before or after 1974. Some of us stood in awe at our televisions again, overwhelmed as were four decades earlier to realize, my god, that’s Hank Aaron.
That’s Hank Aaron!
Then, in the hours that followed, Bartolo Colon, the second-oldest player in the National League this season, pitched seven shutout innings and became the eighth New York Mets starting pitcher to win a game past the age of 40, joining a select group that began with Warren Spahn, who played eleven seasons with Hank Aaron, and continued with Frank Tanana, who gave up the 748th home run of Aaron’s career when Hank was finishing up with the Brewers.
Spahn, when he was a Met starting pitcher in 1965, played with Tug McGraw, who would later play with Julio Franco. Tanana, when he was a Met starting pitcher in 1993, played with Tony Fernandez, who would also later play with Julio Franco.
Franco’s and Fernandez’s teammate when they got together on the 1997 Cleveland Indians? Why, Bartolo Colon. Of course, Bartolo Colon.
(P.S. It’s also three degrees from Hank Aaron to Kyle Farnsworth, 38, who pitched the eighth inning in the Mets’ 4-0 victory over the Braves, and three degrees from Aaron to Jose Valverde, 36, who pitched the ninth. But you probably could have guessed that by now.)