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Feats Not Feted

Controversial issues with commissioners link Aaron, Bonds

May 21, 2006|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

Beyond the threatening and racist hate mail that formed a disturbing backdrop to the culmination of Henry Aaron's assault on Babe Ruth's career record for home runs, there were controversial issues then between commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Aaron and the Atlanta Braves, just as controversy now engulfs Commissioner Bud Selig and Barry Bonds.

On memorable nights separated by 32 years, Kuhn was not there when Aaron hit his 715th home run to surpass Ruth's 714, and Selig was not at McAfee Coliseum on Saturday when Bonds continued his meteoric climb by hitting his sixth home run of the season to match Ruth's career total in a 4-2 interleague victory by his San Francisco Giants over the Oakland Athletics.

Aaron, of course, went on to hit 755, meaning Bonds is merely tied for second on that hallowed ladder, and the commissioner is not obligated to fete anything less than first.

That has always been true, and probably more so at a time when Bonds' amazing and accelerated record pursuit has been clouded by steroid allegations and documentations, the scope of which finally prompted Selig to order an investigation into Bonds and baseball's entire performance-enhanced era.

In addition, the commissioner's tempered response to Bonds' unrelenting arrival at 714 has been motivated in part by:

* The displeasure and defiance of some corporate sponsors at the idea of celebrating an accomplishment possibly fueled by a chemist.

* The fact that a new grand jury is reportedly looking into the possibility that Bonds committed perjury during testimony to the grand jury investigating the steroid mill known as the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.

All of this legal and criminal smog contributes to a controversy far different from that which developed as Aaron caught and passed Ruth.

The hate mail was one aspect.

Aaron has estimated that he received almost 1 million deliveries during the 1973 season, hardening his resolve.

At 39, he hit his 40th homer -- No. 713 -- on the next-to-last day of the season.

The record was inevitable, and the Braves wanted it to come at Fulton County Stadium -- a reward for their fans and a potential economic boost for the franchise.

The schedule stood in the way. They opened the 1974 season with three games in Cincinnati and announced that Aaron would not play in any of them.

Kuhn knew that the game's integrity was at stake without the aroused New York media reminding him about it in regular and withering attacks on the Braves as the season neared.

Ultimately, in the face of the club's defiance, Kuhn cited his authority under the game's "best interest" provision, threatened the Braves with penalties and instructed them to play Aaron in the same two-out-of-three games pattern with which he was employed in 1973.

Neither Aaron nor the Braves were happy about it, citing several occasions in which players on the verge of historic accomplishments had been held out of the lineup, but they relented.

Aaron started the opener and slugged record-tying No. 714 off Jack Billingham in his first at-bat. He sat out the second game and went hitless against Clay Kirby (called out twice on strikes) in the series finale. Aaron returned to Atlanta and 53,775 fans on the night of April 8. After walking in his first at-bat against the Dodgers' Al Downing, he hit No. 715 in the fourth inning, lifting the lean, graceful product of the barnstorming Negro leagues past the beloved Bambino.

Monte Irvin, a Kuhn emissary, was hooted as he tried to congratulate Aaron on behalf of baseball, the crowd refusing to accept the commissioner's absence or his decision to dictate the lineups in Cincinnati.

Kuhn, who had been there for 714, opted to attend a fan club dinner on the eve of the Indians' opener in Cleveland rather than follow Aaron to Atlanta.

In his book "Hardball," Kuhn wrote:

"Was it a wise public relations move? Probably not, although I can assure you I had all the votes in Cleveland that night. Maybe commissioners should worry more about the Clevelands of baseball anyway. Having seen Aaron hit Number 714, I felt no obligation to follow him day by day until No. 715 came along. Who could predict when that would be? ... By hindsight, would I have opted for Cleveland or Atlanta? The answer is Cleveland, but how I wish I could have been two people in two places that night."

In subsequent meetings, Kuhn wrote, Aaron was never critical, always the "soul of friendship and good humor."

However, in his book, "I Had a Hammer," Aaron wrote that he was "deeply offended" that Kuhn was not there to watch him try to break a record that was supposed to be "the most sacred in baseball."

"It was almost as if he didn't want to dignify the record or didn't want to be part of the surpassing of Babe Ruth," Aaron wrote. "Whatever his reason ... I think it was terribly inadequate. I took it personally, and, even though Kuhn and I have met and talked about it since then, I still do."

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