By Rich Acritelli
Hank Aaron: “I tell young people — including my granddaughter — there is no shortcut in life. You have to take it one step at a time and work hard. And you have to give back.”
These were the words of one of the most prolific baseball players ever to hit against opposing pitchers. Aaron had staggering numbers that saw him compile 755 home runs, 3,771 hits, 2,297 runs that were driven in, and he held a career batting average of .305.
On Jan. 22, this noted giant within “America’s Pastime” died at 87 years old. Always armed with a big smile and a can-do attitude, Aaron was a true ambassador to baseball that saw him reach some of the highest personal achievements that any person has ever gained in this game.
Surpassing Babe Ruth was an endeavor that Aaron worked on during the length of over 20 years in baseball. After the 1973 season, he hit 713 home runs and had to wait the following season to surpass this record. At 9:07 p.m. on April 8, 1974, in front of over 53,000 fans, Aaron stepped up to the plate, with light bulbs going off, and reporters were eager to write about the two-run home run swing that surpassed Ruth.
Since he left baseball in the late 1970s, Frank Tepedino worked at Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, where he was a fixture behind the counter. For decades, he screened T-shirts, uniforms and he provided professional advice for local families to help them pick out baseball equipment.
This Brooklyn native and resident of St. James was a talented hitter who was on the rosters of the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. He was later a 9/11 firefighter who threw out the first pitch in the New York Yankees playoff game against Oakland Athletics, only weeks after the nation was attacked by terrorists.
During his career, Tepedino played next to the historic baseball figures of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Aaron. Tepedino opposed baseball legends of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Bridgehampton local farm boy Karl Yastrzemski.
Tepedino recalled that it was an amazing experience to compete against the best players ever to put on a uniform. According to him, “Players like Aaron changed the entire atmosphere of the game, the stadiums and their own teams. They were a different caliber of talent and playing with Aaron, you always appreciated his work ethic toward the game. You always wanted to do your best within his presence. If you appreciated baseball greatness, Aaron was one of the top five ever to take the field.”
When looking at the newsreels and pictures of Aaron hitting the pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing over the left field wall, Tepedino can be seen welcoming him after he rounded the bases. On an electric night, the look of Aaron running around the bases and being patted on the back by two fans was one of the greatest sports scenes ever recorded. With his sideburns and blue Braves jacket, Tepedino along with his teammates and coaches, greeted Aaron at home plate.
During this chase to surpass this record, Tepedino recalled, “Everyone was wondering when Aaron was going to hit enough home runs — except Aaron. As a power hitter, he was fully confident that he would eventually catch Ruth.”
The game resumed with Aaron staying in the game for one more at bat, but he was physically and mentally exhausted from this daunting experience, and Tepedino replaced him in the lineup.
It was a wonderful night for baseball, but there were many concerns over the personal safety of Aaron. Even in 1974, 20 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that ended the “separate but equal” conditions within public schools, poor conditions for Black Americans were still present. Tepedino remembered that these ballplayers had to face difficult segregation conditions within hotels, restaurants and traveling accommodations.
Long after President Harry Truman (D) desegregated the armed forces, Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier and President Lyndon Johnson (D) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans were still battling for equality. During his own career, Tepedino met Robinson and as he played for the Yankees, he was trained by Olympic hero Jesse Owens. Tepedino looked back “in awe” of these athletes that accepted an immense responsibility to fight for an entire race of people in America.
In 1948, a younger Aaron cut class in Mobile, Alabama, to see Robinson speak at a local drugstore. After seeing this extraordinary player and activist speak, Aaron was determined to be a professional ballplayer who later faced similar hatred problems that Robinson had to endure with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
At an early age, Aaron was continually warned by his parents to stay clear of the Ku Klux Klan that marched near his home and widely displayed burning crosses. In 1952, Aaron signed his first professional contract with The Negro Leagues team of the Indianapolis Clowns, where early scouts determined that he was an “all-around hitter.”
Tepedino identified the racial complexities of this time, noting that “the Black ballplayer in the South still had limited rights, compared to when we played games in Chicago, where you would see leaders like Jesse Jackson visit our teammates in the locker room.”
For Aaron, it was an amazing chase to overcome Ruth’s record, but at a dangerous personal cost. Starting in 1973, the Atlanta Braves had a security presence for him during home and road games. Eventually the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent agents on the field to protect him from the numerous death threats that he received.
Every day, Aaron read hate mail that threatened the kidnapping of his children if he attempted to break Ruth’s record. Aaron later stated on CNN, “I’ve always felt like once I put the uniform on and once I got out onto the playing field, I could separate the two from, say, an evil letter I got the day before or event 20 minutes before. God gave me the separation, gave me the ability to separate the two of them.”
In 1973, for most of the season the Braves were contenders to make the playoffs. At 39 years old, Aaron was at the cusp of passing this record by hitting 40 home runs. Tepedino remembered that the enhanced scrutiny and media hype never impacted Aaron’s performance on the field. Tepedino also described the positive support that his manager Eddie Mathews had toward his former longtime teammate in Aaron. Both Mathews and Aaron terrorized opposing pitchers within the heart of the Braves lineup by hitting between them 863 home runs. Next to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, this was one of the most feared tandems ever to consistently oppose pitching for many years.
Unlike daily media scrutiny of today, Aaron during most of his pursuit, only had the Braves beat writers covering the team. It was not until he was within reach of Ruth that there were over 50 reporters following his every movement until April 8, 1974.
Tepedino enjoyed playing with Aaron and remembered him to be a “soft-spoken man, that never bragged, was approachable, that always flashed a big smile. During this stressful time, the team realized that he was under immense pressure, and we all gave him his space.”
With a full house of fans, and Gov. Jimmy Carter (D) in attendance, Aaron’s home run was hit beyond the left field reach of Dodger Bill Buckner. With his family around him, Aaron later held onto the ball that was retrieved from the fans. After the game, he spoke with President Richard Nixon (R) who congratulated him on this endeavor. Later after Aaron crossed home plate with this record in his name and surviving through this immense pressure, the prolific hitter said to the media, “I just thank God it’s all over.”
The last time that Tepedino saw Aaron was five years ago at a major dinner in New York City to support Baseball Assistance Team. They were with many other former ballplayers helping to raise money for some of their peers who had fallen upon hard economic times.
While Tepedino was pleased to see Aaron and to say hello to this legendary figure, these former players were once again together to share a special “comradery and fraternity” of former athletes who were reminiscing about their days in the sun.
Through the passing of an absolute gentlemen in Aaron, who was a special player and a citizen to fight for enhanced rights for African Americans, Tepedino surely has witnessed major American memories within local and national history. Through his own immense baseball talent, Tepedino shared the field with athletic figures who will never fade away from “America’s Pastime.”
Sean Hamilton of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society contributed to this article.