Think of the most iconic play in baseball history, and Hank Aaron’s 715th homer approaches the top of any list.
Add in the social impact of baseball’s greatest plays and Hammerin’ Hank’s clout might be at the top. Just eight other men joined Aaron in the Atlanta Braves’ starting lineup the night he broke Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old career home run record on April 8, 1974. One of them was Atlanta’s newly acquired shortstop: Council Rock’s Craig Robinson.
“That was a really cool time,” Robinson recently recalled. “We went into Cincinnati to open the season. The home run where (Aaron) tied the record was the first time he went to the plate. Hank didn’t swing at one pitch. The count went to 3-and-2. The first time he swung the bat off of (Jack) Billingham, it went out of the park. That’s when everybody went crazy.”
Robinson was simultaneously learning how to handle his first permanent starting job, while navigating the national media maelstrom surrounding the Braves.
“Early in that game, Johnny Bench hit a rocket to my left. It was hit about as hard of a ball as I’ve ever seen and I happened to stick out my glove and catch it. I remember after that,” Robinson chuckled, “saying to myself, ‘If everyone hits the ball that hard up here, I might not be around!’”
Three games later, Los Angeles’ Al Downing picked off Robinson in the third inning of Atlanta’s home opener … a fact long forgotten and forgiven since Aaron’s two-run record breaking dinger one inning later became an instant classic.
It was “Downing against Hank and Hank ended it pretty quickly,” Robinson described.
With 755 career round trippers, Aaron retired as baseball’s home run king. The clean Aaron is still viewed as the true King by many, who point to the illegal performance enhancing drugs that stained future records.
Breaking one of baseball’s most cherished milestones is hard enough. Breaking it in the social climate when Aaron played seems impossible with hindsight. Just six years before the record fell, almost to the day, the Braves postponed their season opener at St. Louis because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. King’s service took place just two miles from the Braves’ Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Some folks were not ready to see the African-American Aaron break the white Ruth’s record and they virulently made their displeasure known.
“Hank was a great guy and a super teammate,” Robinson remembered. “But I can recall a certain amount of unease and a certain amount of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ when they had bodyguards in the clubhouse. There was a special area for Hank to be safe and away from others which made you think, ‘Wow. I wonder what this is all about.’
“Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker, who were two of his best friends, later commented that Hank would sit in his cubicle and read a letter, crumple it up, throw it on the floor and leave it. They would go over and read it, and it was some of the nastiest, most racist kind of comments that you would ever imagine. But even then, Ralph and Dusty said Hank didn’t talk to them about it very much. He kept a lot of things inside,” Robinson concluded.
Atlanta acquired Robinson from Philadelphia in December 1973. The Phillies validated Robinson’s first team All-ACC career by selecting him out of Wake Forest in the 11th round of the 1970 draft. He debuted with Philadelphia on Sept. 9, 1972.
“The Vet was a wonderful place to play because of the fans and enthusiasm of Philadelphia,” Robinson said. “It’s really cool, if you grow up there, to wear a Phillies’ uniform. It is a wonderful experience.”
Two more of Robinson’s teammates from Triple-A Eugene debuted that week: catcher Bob Boone and a fellow infielder named Michael Jack Schmidt. Robinson called Schmidt “one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with: maybe the best.”
Schmidt bashed 26 homers for Eugene in 1972. “Schmitty was a great hitter with great hand eye coordination,” Robinson continued. “Schmitty made a comment to me once of ‘Geez, I ought to hit more homers than that in the Big Leagues because they play so many more games!’ It turned out to be true. Boonie was a very sharp, level-headed, common sense guy.” Both Boone and Schmidt were cornerstones of Philadelphia’s 1980 World Series champion team.
The Herald will conclude its conversation with Craig Robinson next week.