By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 08, 2004 at 5:31 AM

{image1}Tomorrow is opening day at Miller Park, but today is the big day in baseball in Milwaukee. After all, it was 30 years ago today that Hammerin' Hank Aaron, who started and ended his career with the word "Milwaukee" emblazoned on his shirt, shattered Babe Ruth's home run record.

While those of us of a certain age remember the thrill of witnessing Aaron's feat -- even if only via television -- we were too young to know that for Aaron, it was more of a relief to have it over with than a moment of triumph.

Thankfully, author and baseball fan Tom Stanton recounts the race for the record in his new book, "Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America," published in hardcover this month by William Morrow.

"In doing interviews, I was amazed by how many people didn't know about the problems facing Aaron back then," Stanton says from his publisher's New York offices. "Beginning in May 1973, stories had begun appearing in the papers and on TV about Aaron enduring hate mail. As a result, tens of thousands of children wrote Aaron encouraging letters and he ended up dedicating his quest to them. ... But many details weren't known until years later. And it would certainly be possible for folks to have missed the stories altogether."

Those stories are ones that are sadly familiar to most Americans. Although Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in Brooklyn in 1947, in 1974, African American ballplayers still faced prejudice.

As he chased Ruth's record, Aaron got harassing mail, was heckled and received death threats that were so frightening, Aaron considered leaving baseball before he reached the milestone. He was given police protection and his daughters had FBI security at college.

Fans in Atlanta were hardly thrilled. Unlike the excitement generated by the McGwire/Sosa bat battle, on the night Aaron swatted homer number 700, a record-low 1,326 fans were on hand to witness it.

Even within baseball, Aaron faced opposition. MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn never congratulated Aaron on reaching number 700, and Kuhn missed the game in which Aaron broke the record so that he could attent a meeting of the Wahoo Club in Cleveland. Kuhn also reportedly stoked rumors that opposing pitchers were helping Aaron out by going easy on him.

"Babe Ruth was long dead when Aaron was chasing the record. But his wife was alive and made Aaron's pursuit a little more difficult with occasional sniping comments," Stanton says.

While Stanton thinks Barry Bonds can beat Aaron's record and may have an easier time of it, he doesn't rule out Bonds facing some of the same issues.

"Bonds will have an easier time because he won't have to endure as much of the bigotry and racism that Aaron encountered," he says. "In addition, Aaron will be there, anointing him as his successor.

"Home run-wise, Bonds has no active rivals. But I suspect there are players who would prefer he not break the record. He's not especially close to even his teammates. He appears not to be well liked by other major leaguers. Respected, yes. Liked, no."

Despite all of this, nowadays, Aaron is an undisputed living legend of the diamond, even if a large proportion of current baseball fans have never even had the chance to see him play.

"With Aaron in particular, I think some of it has to do with his personality," Stanton says. "In my experiences, he is a very dignified and respectful individual, kind of quiet and private. When around him, especially in his later years, you sense that dignity. He simply carries himself in a manner befitting a legend."

Nowhere is Hammerin' Hank more revered than right here in Milwaukee, where he played 14 of his 23 major league seasons with the Braves for 12 years from 1954 and with the Brewers for two (1975-'76).

"Aaron has a special relationship with Wisconsin and Milwaukee, in particular," Stanton agrees. "He started his minor league career in Eau Claire and two years later was with the Braves.

"Even though he encountered racism in Wisconsin, the state was more progressive than Alabama, from where he came. Aaron's family was happy in Milwaukee, and he didn't want to leave when the Braves moved to the South. The fact that he had won a World Series in Milwaukee in 1957 also added to the warm feelings."

So, drink a toast to Aaron today. Breaking the home run record was tough work for him all around and that he remains a dignified guy after all he put up with just makes Milwaukee baseball fans love him more.

Click here to see video of Aaron's 715th home run.

Tom Stanton comes to Milwaukee Wednesday, April 14 at 7 p.m. to read from and sign copies of his book at Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue. Admission is free.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.