April 19, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Jerry Green

Long wait, quick end to Hank Aaron's chase of Babe Ruth

Hank Aaron, left, broke Babe Ruth's career major-league home run record 40 years ago this month. (Associated Press)

The gray finger twisted and spun downward outside the airplane window. This was the start of the second part of a two-season segment of baseball history.

But at the moment, I was too panicked to think of anything but would the pilot be able to get this airplane on the ground, onto the tarmac and to the safety of the terminal.

The magic number 715 amounted to zero.

Henry Aaron’s quest to supplant Babe Ruth as the career home runs leader in the major leagues had become a frivolous adventure — a disconnected, long story that didn’t matter.

A tornado was spinning over the Ohio River and above the city of Cincinnati. It was threatening and eerie and frightening.

The airplane bucked and rolled in the heavy air. Then the pilot guided it lower. Outside you could see the finger aimed at the city. Then the pilot set the shuddering craft down on the precious ground of the Greater Cincinnati Airport.

I was still shivering when I stepped off the plane and onto the jet-way. I walked out through the gate, headed for baggage claim, suffocated with relief.

Standing at the next gate, waiting to meet his fiancée, stood Henry Aaron — in person. He smiled and we shook hands. And the two-season vigil was resumed.

Not yet history

Sections of downtown Cincinnati had been devastated by the tornado. But the next day they played ball — the traditional Opening Day for the major leagues, April 4, 1974.

The historical portion of Aaron’s quest had started the previous September. We trailed Aaron to Atlanta, to Houston and back to Atlanta.

Every day in this early autumn of 1973, he stood smiling before his locker in the clubhouse, available to be grilled by 10 or a dozen of us, guys who became familiar to him.

This was a significant sports story. It was packed with racism and death threats. Henry Aaron, a black ballplayer, was closing in on Babe Ruth’s famous — supposedly inviolate — career home run record of 715.

The questions became repetitious.

“What’d you do today, Hank?”

“I went to the butcher.”

That actually became a newspaper story — with a headline.

Day after day he would tell us about the hate mail he received from bigots.

In Houston, Aaron’s Braves faced the Astros, managed by Leo Durocher.

We were confronted with some genuine journalism.

“Leo, what kind of guy was Babe Ruth?” we asked.

Durocher had broken into the major leagues with the Yankees, a teammate of Ruth’s.

“He was a big, fat bum,” Durocher said. “He stuffed himself with food. He was a pig.”

A fresh angle.

Aaron hit No. 712 in Houston. Then the Braves went home to Atlanta for the final weekend of the season.

On Saturday, in the next-to-last game of the 1973 season, Aaron hit No. 713 off Jerry Reuss.

The season ended the next day with Aaron getting three hits. All singles. He was stuck for the winter one home run short of tying Ruth’s record.

New king crowned

Between seasons was hectic. At spring training, Aaron was hit by waves of invading sports journalists at the Braves’ camp in West Palm Beach, Fla. His persona never changed. He remained cool and personable. Always.

Through the spring, the suspense became stronger and stronger.

Then the season was about to start, and the story remains historic and vivid 40 years later.

The tornado and the rough landing, Aaron at the airport. And the mob of journalists already in town.

Opening Day in Cincinnati, where baseball’s original professional ballclub played, had become a national tradition. This April afternoon Opening Day had the added suspense and drama.

Drama?

Aaron stood at home plate in the first inning. Jack Billingham, the Reds’ starter, wound up and delivered his pitch.

Hank Aaron drove the ball over the left-field fence for a home run.

No. 714.

We had speculated and ruminated about Aaron’s quest all winter, and in his first at-bat of 1974 he had tied Babe Ruth.

There was no doubt 715 would come.

Just when?

We were a throng now and we trooped off to Atlanta.

No. 715 occurred quickly — Monday, April 8, back in Atlanta.

It happened as America watched on television.

Aaron hit a pitch from Al Downing of the Dodgers and ran around the bases in a slow gait. At second base, Bill Russell, the Dodgers’ shortstop, shook his hand in congratulations. Henry continued home, dragging a couple of celebrating fans with him.

And at last his quest was over. He was the home-run king.

Hank Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs.

Ultimately, Barry Bonds passed Aaron and reach 762 home runs. Bonds made it into a scarred, not-quite-legitimate record.

And now with the celebrations of Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s precious home-run record — and television commemorating the historic event with endless reruns this month — the bigots are back. A new generation, bigotry gone backward. The hate mail has returned by the batches.

Forty years ago Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth was so quickly over. Sort of like the speed of a tornado. The image of that gray finger outside the airplane window, spinning down onto Cincinnati, remains vivid today.

It still scares the bejabbers out of me.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter who recently earned a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Society of Professional Journalists. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.