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The Canadian Press

Alphonso Davies wraps up remarkable year with Bayern by winning Lionel Conacher Award

Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who shone on soccer’s biggest stages in 2020, has been voted winner of the Lionel Conacher Award as The Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
Davies, who turned 20 on Nov. 2, won worldwide praise for his pace and athleticism at left fullback while helping Bayern fill its trophy case. Davies and the German powerhouse captured the Champions League, Bundesliga title, DFB Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 2020.
Individually the Canadian was named Bundesliga rookie of the season for 2019-20 and was voted to the FIFPRO Best 11 by his peers, becoming the first North American to make the men’s all-star squad. He is the third-youngest player to earn men’s World 11 status behind Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt and French forward Kylian Mbappe.
“It’s been a fantastic year for Alphonso,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “He’s flown the flag for Canada, he’s been a real bright spot on the sporting landscape in a time where we really needed some bright spots.
“And the awards are thoroughly deserved. He’s doing things at the highest level in the world game … And he’s Canadian, he’s from Edmonton. I think for all of us, it’s just something we can be proud of. And for those young players, it’s that reminder that anything’s possible, anything’s possible for a Canadian.”
Davies received 35 of 67 votes by sports editors, writers, broadcasters across the country.
“A Canadian at the pinnacle of world soccer? It doesn’t get much easier (of a pick) than that,” said Hamilton Spectator sports editor Jeff Day.
“Less than two years after last suiting up for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Alphonso Davies showed his talents on the global stage in the world’s most popular sport, eviscerating the Barcelona defence at one point in the quarterfinal as Bayern Munich stormed to a Champions League victory to complete a historic treble,” said Paul Attfield, sports reporter for the Globe and Mail.
Davies is the first soccer player to win the Conacher Award, joining such Canadian sporting icons as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Donovan Bailey and Ferguson Jenkins.
“A lot of great Canadian athletes have won it, so it’s an honour to be the first soccer player to do so,” Davies told The Canadian Press via email.
Kansas City Chiefs lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who won the Super Bowl in February before opting out of the 2020 NFL season after working in a long-term care facility in his home province at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave, was second with 25 votes. Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was the only other with multiple votes (three).
The choice of Davies completed a soccer sweep among the CP individual sports awards. On Monday, Canada captain Christine Sinclair won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as the top Canadian female athlete. She also won in 2012, after leading Canada to Olympic bronze at the London Games.
The team of the year will be unveiled Wednesday.
Sinclair, a 37-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., has long been the face of Canadian soccer. Davies has joined her in rapid-fire fashion.
Herdman says Davies and Sinclair share more than just soccer skills.
“The one character trait that I’ve seen from both of them is a level of humility,” said Herdman. “But when they’re on the field, they are fierce, fierce custodians of this shirt and patriots of this country. You see that in their effort, in their desire to win and the passion they play with.”
It is to Davies’ credit that he has reached such heights on the field during such a difficult year.
“It hasn’t always been easy this year, not just for me, but for many people out there,” Davies said. “A lot of people are in much tougher situations than me and I am very fortunate to be where I am, so I try to remember that and stay humble whenever things feel tough.
“Playing soccer has always been an outlet for me, so being able to train and compete really helped, and I hope everything we accomplished at Bayern helped bring some joy into people’s lives.”
Davies was also voted Canada Soccer’s Men’s Player of the Year and was co-winner with Duvernay-Tardif of the Lou Marsh Trophy, presented by the Toronto Star to the Canadian athlete of the year.
Davies turned heads in late February in Champions League action at Chelsea when he set up Bayern’s third goal with a lightning run down the left flank and cross to Robert Lewandowski for a tap-in in the 76th minute and a 3-0 win in the first leg of a round-of-16 showdown.
“Alphonso Davies is a world-class left back,” former U.S. international and current TV pundit Stuart Holden said on social media. “Top five in world soccer right now easy.”
In June, Davies was clocked at 36.51 km/h in the first half of a win over Werder Bremen, according to the Bundesliga. That erased the fastest recorded speed in league history (36.19 km/h by Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi) since detailed data collection began in 2011.
Veteran Bayern forward Thomas Mueller dubbed Davies “the FC Bayern Road Runner,” referencing the speedy cartoon character.
In August, Davies stood out again in Bayern’s 8-2 beatdown of Barcelona in Champions League play in Lisbon. Davies set up Bayern’s fifth goal in the 63rd minute with a sensational run down the left flank.
The Canadian known as Phonzie eluded three Barca players, leaving Portuguese international Nelson Semedo in his wake before racing past several more defenders into the penalty box and sending a perfect pass to Joshua Kimmich to slot in from close range.
“`Best left back in the world!” tweeted Canadian international Ashley Lawrence.
With a winning smile and playful way about him, Davies has won a legion of fans on social media with 3.3 million followers on Instagram, three million on TikTok and 239,300 on Twitter.
Bayern rewarded Davies in April with a contract extension that runs through June 2025.
“Alphonso Davies is a player who has already achieved a high level of performance at a young age and at the same time still has great potential for development,” said Oliver Kahn, an executive board member and former star goalkeeper at Bayern. “Anyone who can consistently play at the top level at FC Bayern at such a young age can have a great career ahead of them.”
Davies is also a key player for Canada with five goals and seven assists in 17 appearances, playing both as a left back and winger.
Canada and Davies face a full schedule in 2021 with World Cup qualifying finally starting in March.
Davies says he is excited at what lies ahead for Canada.
“We have a lot of young, exciting talent coming through, players are playing in competitive leagues who are hungry,” he said. “And we are all ready to make history for Canada Soccer in 2021.”
Herdman is also looking forward to the future for Davies.
“We’re all proud of what he’s achieved this year. But I think we can see there’s still more to come. And that consistency now is probably Alphonso’s next big challenge. Can he repeat and can he take it to the next level?”
Davies was signed by Bayern from the Vancouver Whitecaps in the summer of 2018 in a US$22-million transfer deal, an MLS record at the time. He started to train with his new team in November after the end of the Whitecaps season.
Davies’ life story is inspirational. His parents fled their home in Monrovia, Liberia, to escape a civil war, ending up at a refugee camp in Ghana where Davies was born.
He came to Canada at the age of five.
Davies shared his story at the FIFA Congress in Moscow in June 2018 as part of the joint North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup. Canadian soccer officials credit his powerful presentation for helping push the bid over the finish line.
“It was a hard life. But when I was five years old, a country called Canada welcomed us in,” he told FIFA delegates.
It was not all roses for Davies in 2020. He tore ankle ligaments Oct. 24 in Bayern’s 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, returning to action Dec. 9 in Champions League group play against Lokomotiv Moscow.
Davies and Canadian women’s international Jordyn Huitema, who are a couple away from the pitch, had to endure racism. A photo of Davies, who is Black, and Huitema, who is white, on Instagram while enjoying a vacation in Spain drew more than 14,000 comments including some that were offensive.
Canada Soccer, Herdman, Canada women’s coach Bev Priestman and Bayern president Herbert Hainer all spoke out against the racism.
Away from the field, Davies has used his name to help the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency with the mandate to protect and help refugees.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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'Frayed nerves': Top Olympic official confronts grief while Canadian athletes fret over Tokyo – CBC.ca

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It has been a dizzying 24 hours in the Olympic news cycle, with thousands of athletes, coaches, government officials and reporters trying to sift through what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Are the Games going forward like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists? Or are they being cancelled? 

Inside her Toronto home, Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo, was doing her best to track down information Thursday afternoon about a published report suggesting the Japanese government wants to cancel the Games. Her phone immediately started lighting up. 

“The story was first flagged to me by an athlete. I looked at the article. When you take the time to look at the original article, there was conjecture. It was someone guessing,” McBean told CBC Sports. 

McBean, a three-time Olympic champion rower, went into full information-gathering mode all while trying to calm the nerves of Canadian athletes who were tweeting and texting and phoning, fearful their Olympic dreams were dashed. 

“I wanted to make sure we were getting to athletes before they started going down a rabbit hole of fear, doubt, or sadness.” McBean said. “I knew that we wanted to and needed to get to it quickly because athletes were picking up on this. People are on frayed nerves.”

Hours after the Times of London story, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker took to Twitter to issue a statement.

The committee “has confidence that the Games can be staged safely and successfully given what has been learned in sport over the last several months and the emphasis the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee have placed on COVID-19 countermeasures,” Shoemaker wrote on Twitter.

McBean said their swift action and proactive approach was crucial during those valuable hours after the initial report.

“I was really proud of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s response to confirm what we knew — that the Games are still very much happening.”

A woman wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near a banner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Emotional time

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks for McBean, who on Jan. 11 lost her rowing partner and longtime friend, Kathleen Heddle, to cancer. 

Heddle and McBean won Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the coxless pair and double sculls respectively. Heddle also earned gold with the women’s eight in 1992.

With all the craziness and unknowns around the Olympics, the postponement, this latest report and a pandemic still forcing most of the world into lockdown, Heddle’s advice has very much been on McBean’s mind. 

“Kathleen Heddle is always with me,” McBean said, beginning to cry. “And she taught me to stay focused on the things that are important and I apply that now.

“And what’s important is that athletes remain focused on what they can do and that they listen to reliable sources. Listen to the people closest to you who you can trust. And that’s what’s important. That’s what I take forward as the chef. And how we’re going to proceed with the next six months.”

The next six months will no doubt be littered with challenges for the IOC and Olympic organizing committee. Polls show Japanese residents overwhelmingly don’t want the Games. 

Only about 50 per cent of the approximately 11,000 Olympic hopeful athletes have qualified for the Games. And on Friday, Japanese health officials reported 108 deaths, a record daily high. The country has yet to start a vaccination program in the country but has a target date of late February. 

Brand-new, low-temperature freezers are seen at warehouse at a freezer supplier on Friday. Some of COVID-19 vaccine must be kept at the ultra-cold temperature of around -70 C. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

‘No Plan B’

Much of the rhetoric and statements issued from the COC, IOC and many other national Olympic committees in the last days have an eerily similar tone to last March, when the decision was made to postpone the Olympics for a year.

The COC made the bold move of being first to declare its athletes would not participate, citing public and athlete safety as the priority. 

IOC president Thomas Bach said then there’s “no Plan B,” meaning in the IOC’s view the Olympics are happening and that the IOC is fully committed to making it happen.  

He uttered those same words Thursday.

“A lot has changed. Everything has changed. I think everyone around the world would say there’s nothing the same in our understanding of the coronavirus,” McBean said. “We know a lot more about management and prevention. We know it’s an airborne virus. There was a lot more fear of unknowns last March. Now we understand the value of 14 days and isolation. We understand the value of masks. We know so much more.”

WATCH | Olympian DeBues-Stafford talks importance of vaccines:

Jacqueline Doorey speaks with Canadian middle distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, how it can affect the Olympics, and whether athletes deserve to cut the line. 5:51

When pressed about those same public and athlete health concerns as things stand now, McBean said it is still the priority. However, she’s unwavering when it comes to whether the Olympics go ahead.

“I am confident. I think international sports federations around the world are doing everything they can to understand the virus,” she said. “Sport at its core is resilient. It’s about figuring things out. They don’t say that’s an Olympic-sized task for nothing. You don’t get to win gold medals easily. You have to figure out an Olympic-sized task.”

That’s what this continues to be. A task so immense many are skeptical it’s going to happen — or why it’s happening in the face of a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

“Our athletes are just as conflicted as everyone because they are Canadians first before they are athletes. And like everyone they are doing their best to stay connected to their passion,” McBean said. 

“That’s what the Olympics have always been. The resilience of the athletes who represent the kid next door. They seem more like us and our communities. I think the Olympics athletes have rallied and have been part of their communities.”

McBean concedes it won’t be like the Games she attended, or the ones Canadians are used to watching. Under normal circumstances there are so many extracurricular activities and parties outside of the competitions. McBean knows that can’t happen this time.

“The Olympics are going to be different,” she said. “There are two parts — the competition and the Games, which is a celebration, and the parties and all the other stuff. The way they’ll happen is because they’ll be paired down to the competitions.”

“We hope to take a team of over 400 Canadian athletes to test themselves against citizens of the world and show the world a little bit of light.”

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Oilers activate forward James Neal off injured reserve – Sportsnet.ca

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The Edmonton Oilers activated veteran forward James Neal off injured reserve on Friday ahead of the team’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Neal is expected to make his season debut versus the Leafs.

The 33-year-old started the new NHL season on the COVID-19 list, but was activated off that list on Jan. 15.

The Whitby, Ont., native had 19 goals and 31 points in 55 games for the Oilers last season, 12 of those goals coming on the power play.

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Hank Aaron, baseball's one-time home run king, dies at 86 – CTV News

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ATLANTA —
Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.

“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king.

It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Aaron’s death follows that of seven other Baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more — Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton — already this year.

“Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans,” said former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend. “He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game, and his contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”

Before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Hall of Famer finished his career with 755, a total surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 — though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds finished his tarnished career with 762, though Aaron never begrudged someone eclipsing his mark.

His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the record.

No one could take away his legacy.

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.

He wasn’t on hand when Bonds hit No. 756, but he did tape a congratulatory message that was shown on the video board in San Francisco shortly after the new record-holder went deep. While saddened by claims of rampant steroid use in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aaron never challenged those marks set by players who may have taken pharmaceutical short cuts.

Besides, he always had that April night in 1974.

“Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,” Aaron remembered shortly before the 30th anniversary of the landmark homer. “I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.”

Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.

“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”

Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.

“It’s very offensive,” he once said. “They call me `nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”

After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.

“We’re a different country now,” Clinton said at a 75th birthday celebration for Aaron. “You’ve given us far more than we’ll ever give you.”

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the Deep South in 1966. He finished his career back in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.

While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, the Hammer was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).

But it can be argued that no one was so good, for so long, at so many facets of the national pastime.

The long ball was only part of his arsenal.

Aaron was a true five-tool star.

He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics — with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Then there was his work on the base paths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963 when became only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totalled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.

To that point, the feat had only been accomplished by Ken Williams (1922) and Willie Mays (1956 and ’57).

Six-feet tall and listed at 180 pounds during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of the game’s most feared hitters.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt described Aaron as “an unassuming, easygoing man, a quiet superstar, that a ’70s player like me emulated.”

“He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation,” Schmidt said. “In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.”

Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a liner down the left field line off Cincinnati’s Rawley Eastwick on Oct. 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was dealt to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.

The Braves made it clear they no longer wanted Aaron, then 40, returning for another season on the field. They offered him a front office job for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his playing salary.

“Titles?” he said at the time. “Can you spend titles at the grocery store? Executive vice-president, assistant to the executive vice-president, what does it mean if it doesn’t pay good money? I might become a janitor for big money.”

Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers, but hardly closed his career with a flourish. He managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons, going out with a .229 average in 1976.

Even so, his career numbers largely stood the test of time.

Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174) and 13th in doubles (624).

“I feel like that home run I hit is just part of what my story is all about,” Aaron said.

While Aaron hit at least 20 homers in 20 consecutive seasons, he was hardly swinging for the fences. He just happened to hit a lot of balls that went over the fence.

Through his career, Aaron averaged just 63 strikeouts a season. He never whiffed 100 times in a year — commonplace for hitters these days — and posted a career on-base percentage of .374.

He was NL MVP in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games to give Aaron the only World Series title of his career. It also was his lone MVP award, though he finished in the top 10 of the balloting 13 times.

Aaron also was selected for the All-Star Game 21 consecutive years — every season but his first and his last.

His only regret was failing to capture the Triple Crown. Aaron led the NL in homers and RBIs four times each, to go with those two batting crowns. But he never put together all three in the same season, coming closest in 1963 when he led the league in homers (44) and RBIs (130) but finished third in hitting (.319) behind Tommy Davis of the Dodgers with a .326 average.

“Other than that,” Aaron said, “everything else was completed.”

Making his accomplishments even more impressive, Aaron didn’t put up his numbers in an era of gaudy offence and watered-down pitching. He faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton on a regular basis.

Still, Aaron never received the attention he deserved until late in his career. He played in only two World Series. He was stuck far from the media spotlight in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Early in Aaron’s career, the press focused on outfielders like Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, who benefited from playing in the media glare of New York City.

“In my day, sportswriters didn’t respect a baseball player unless you played in New York or Chicago,” Aaron said during a 1999 interview. “If you didn’t come from a big city, it was hard to get noticed.”

He was much more appreciated with the passing of time.

Aaron was elected to Cooperstown in 1982, his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1999, baseball began honouring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers. Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Also in 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Bush praised Aaron for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”

“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said the late Tony Gwynn, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 5, 1934. He headed a long list of outstanding players who came from that Gulf Coast city — Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith among them.

Life was hard for African-Americans in the segregated South.

Baseball was a way out.

“You could say that God kind of had his hands on me, directing me on the right path,” Aaron said in a 2018 interview. “I don’t know any other way I would have gotten out of Mobile, Alabama except for baseball.”

Aaron, who initially hit with a cross-handed style, was spotted by the Braves while trying out for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team. The Giants also were interested — imagine him in same outfield with Mays — but Aaron signed with Milwaukee, spent two seasons in the minors and came up to the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson was injured in spring training.

Aaron’s debut was hardly glowing: he struck out twice and hit into a double play while going 0-for-5. His first homer came before April was done, against Vic Raschi. By season’s end, the rookie had put up promising numbers: 13 homers, 69 RBIs, a .280 average.

Aaron was a full-fledged star by 1957, when he led the Braves to that World Series victory over Mantle’s New York Yankees. The following year, Milwaukee made it back to the Series, only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose to the Yankees in seven games.

Though he played for nearly two more decades, Aaron never came so close to a championship again.

In 1959, the Braves finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first in the NL, only to lose a best-of-three playoff to the Dodgers for the pennant. Aaron’s only other playoff appearance came in 1969, when the Braves were swept by New York’s Amazin’ Mets in the inaugural NL Championship Series.

His dearth of October appearances was baseball’s loss. In 17 post-season games, Aaron batted .362 (25 of 69) with six homers and 16 RBIs.

In the early 1970s, as the Braves tumbled toward a period of futility that would largely last for two decades, Aaron’s steady, sustained excellence suddenly put him in range of the Bambino.

No. 600 came early in the ’71 season.

No. 700 followed in ’73.

“It was some of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen,” recalled former teammate Dusty Baker, who was watching from the on-deck circle when Aaron hit 715. “The way he set up pitchers, the way he was patient. His concentration level was beyond compare. If he was supposed to hit a ball hard, he didn’t miss it.”

The antithesis of Aaron in more than skin colour, Ruth was a bombastic slugger who once hit 60 homers in a season, many of them towering shots that were worthy of their own word.

Ruthian.

The Babe launched the last of his 714 homers in 1935, leaving a career mark that many felt would never be broken — or, if it was, surely by a player capable of spectacular feats, someone such as Mays or Mantle.

However, those two were gone when Aaron came to bat on a chilly April night, facing a left-hander on the downside of his career. Downing walked Aaron the first time up, the bat never leaving his shoulder.

On his way to the plate in the fourth inning, Aaron had a few words for Baker.

“He told me he was tired and he wanted to get it over with right now,” said Baker, who now manages the Houston Astros.

Aaron took ball one in the dirt, then swung at a breaking ball that didn’t break much. He whipped his 34-ounce Louisville Slugger through the strike zone with those powerful wrists. The ball rose higher and higher as the crowd of 53,775 rose to its feet with a collective roar.

Finally, it came down in the Braves bullpen. Despite a mighty leap that left him dangling stop the fence, Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner never had a chance. Atlanta reliever Tom House made the catch at 9:07 p.m. and swiftly returned the ball to Aaron, who was celebrating at home plate with his teammates and parents.

“I know that was the highlight of my baseball career,” House said three decades later. “I know that’s a bad statement for a pitcher to make. But I got to play a very small part in a very historic moment.”

As Aaron rounded second, two young fans sprinted in from right field, startling No. 44 when they patted him on the back before racing back to the stands in left.

“I guess that will always be a part of me running around the bases,” Aaron said. “I never had anyone run with me before. They were just kids having a good time.”

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully was among those delivering the call on the historic shot.

“There’s a high drive into deep left-centre field,” Scully bellowed. “Bucker goes back to the fence — and it is gone.”

Scully remained silent for nearly 30 seconds as Aaron rounded the bases. Finally, the announcer piped up again.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said, well aware of the cultural significance. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

 

——

This story includes research from the late Ed Shearer, a longtime Atlanta sports writer for The Associated Press who covered Aaron’s 715th homer

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