Hank Aaron’s Final Home Run

By Chris Zantow

On Tuesday, July 20, 1976, Hank Aaron hit his 755th and final home run for the Milwaukee Brewers in a 6-2 win over the California Angels.  It was mid-season, so most likely none of the 10,134 in attendance at Milwaukee County Stadium had any idea it was the last time Hammerin’ Hank would hit one out of the park.

 

The Brewers held a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the 7th inning when Aaron came to bat against relief pitcher Dick Drago.  He smoked a solo home run to deep left field close to the foul pole to extend the team’s lead.  It was Aaron’s only hit that day, and followed a home run by George Scott in the previous at bat. Jerry Augustine picked up the win after giving up just 5 hits over 7 innings.  Danny Frisella got a save for throwing the last two innings of relief.  Frisella led the team with just nine saves that year as the team didn’t truly have a designated closer – Ed Rodriguez and Bill Castro were right behind him with eight saves apiece. Besides Augustine, other pitchers that were with the team when the Brewers reached respectability a couple years later included Castro, Moose Haas, Bill Travers, and Jim Slaton.

 

The Brewers had some players in the lineup that would later contribute to the team’s success: Don Money, Robin Yount, and Sixto Lezcano.  Outfielder Gorman Thomas also got into the game and got a hit, but was caught stealing.  Charlie Moore and Jim Gantner were on the bench that day and didn’t see action.

Aaron was in his final year and already knew he would retire after the season.  He was mainly with the team at that point to hopefully bring some respectability to the still fairly young expansion franchise.  If he could mentor younger players along the way and hit a few homers, that was a bonus to the team.  Aaron wasn’t even close to the player he had been just a few years earlier, with knee injuries slowing him down.  He appeared in just 85 games in 1976 and carried a .246 batting average with nine homers into the Angels game.

Milwaukee was hardly a force to be reckoned with in 1976.  The team was a little bit away from seeing many of their earlier draft choices pay off and have enough depth to make trades that would reap rewards.  They carried a 35-49 record into the game and had just dropped a doubleheader to the Angels the day before.  Somehow they managed to pull off an 18-13 record in July and a 15-15 August, but other months like September (8-23) buried the team in the standings.  Milwaukee finished the year with a 66-95 record, good for last place in the American League East division and 32 games behind the front running New York Yankees.

Alex Grammas was manager of the Brewers that season.  He was a former infielder in the 1950’s/60’s that moved into coaching after his playing career ended.  While Grammas had been highly recommended and regarded when he was hired by the Brewers, some players didn’t think much of his methods.  A lot of finger pointing went back and forth during his tenure.  Grammas said some players would “cop out” as the season wore on.  In 1977, infielder Mike Hegan said “Grammas is a nice guy, but as a manager, he makes a good third base coach.”

Late in the season the home run king was honored with “Salute to Hank Aaron Night.”  Aaron was in the lineup on his special night, but went 0 for 5 and the Brewers fell to the New York Yankees 5-3 in 11 innings.  The biggest thrills came in the hour long pre-game ceremony when fans gave Aaron three standing ovations that each lasted more than two minutes.  He also received standing ovations every time he came up to bat.

Aaron said after the game that he wanted to provide the fans with a hitting thrill, but admitted his reflexes were gone.  “I can’t pull the trigger like I used to,” he commented.  “After a certain age Mother Nature takes over.  There’s no more there.”

At age 42 and after 23 years of baseball, Aaron held 11 major league records. He was touched by the response from fans on his special night, saying that “it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.  A lump came once or twice.  It just shows how I can look back at how I was blessed.”  As previously announced, Aaron retired from baseball after the 1976 season.

So what happened to Aaron’s final home run ball?  Groundskeeper Richard Arndt retrieved the ball after it deflected off the hands of a fan.  Arndt had been sitting in the bleachers with the other groundskeepers and wanted to deliver the ball to Aaron after the game and hopefully get a photo with the future hall of famer.  He was told the team was in a meeting, but he should hand the ball over and it would be given to Aaron later.  Arndt kept the ball in hopes of meeting him after the team’s upcoming road trip, but was fired later that day for not returning “club property.”

The termination story was published in the July 23 edition of the Milwaukee Journal.  Arndt wisely called the Journal and gave them the story tip.  This provided proof that he had possession of the ball – a fact that would come in handy years later.  In the article Head groundskeeper Harry Gill said “employees are not allowed to keep balls, even batting practice balls.”  Gill added that any ball hit near a groundskeeper was to be returned to the ballboy.  “If employees were allowed to keep balls they retrieved, we’d have ushers and others hawking balls all over the stadium.  In the article Arndt claimed the rule was seldom enforced, but became an issue because Aaron had been collecting his recent home run balls.  Arndt also said the Brewers wanted him to turn the ball over immediately or not at all.

After the team returned from their road trip, Arndt and a friend hang around the player’s parking lot at County Stadium after a game.  Arndt waited for Aaron to exit the stadium, got his attention, and told him he had home run ball #755.  He asked Aaron to sign the ball, but Aaron refused and told Arndt that he should have given the ball back to the Brewers in the first place.

Arndt went on to place the ball in a safe deposit box at his bank for the next 23 years because he knew the ball was important.  He had relocated to Albuquerque, NM, and became a social worker.  Over the years he turned down offers from collectors to purchase the ball, and even a few offers from Aaron himself.  Aaron stated that his final home run ball was important because 755 was the all-time home run record, not 715 (the number of homers he hit to break Babe Ruth’s original record).

In 1994 Arndt took the ball to a Phoenix card show and got Aaron to sign the ball.  Aaron had no idea he was signing his final home run ball and later claimed he was duped into doing so.  A couple of years later Aaron stated he held the ball in his possession – not Arndt – but later retracted his story.

Arndt picked up an agent named Tim Sullivan to represent him in any selling negotiations.  He held out hope that either Aaron or the Baseball Hall of Fame would eventually receive the ball.  Sullivan had a deal worked out with the Brewers for Arndt to “donate” the ball when Miller Park opened in 2001.  In exchange the Brewers would give cash, signed items by Aaron, and a number of other unique items.  Arndt asked for an hour of time with Wade Boggs and the Brewers decided to pull their offer.

In 1999 Arndt decided to place the ball into a Guernsey auction that also featured Mickey Mantle’s 500th home run ball and Mark McGuire’s 70th home run ball from 1998.  The ball was pulled from the auction when the bidding dropped off at $800,000 – a far cry from the $3.1 million that McGuire’s ball fetched.  In the end Arndt sold the ball to a Connecticut portfolio manager for a reported $655,000.  Arndt donated $162,500 to Aaron’s “Chasing the Dream” foundation.  Arndt said he thought the donation was the right thing to do.

 

In a 2007 LA Times interview, Arndt said, “Uncle Sam got a good chunk, the state of New Mexico got a good chunk, I gave some to our church and my wife and I gave some money to our children.  We were able to do some good things with it.”  He added, “I’m sure everybody would have handled this much more diplomatically had it been Sept. 30 instead of July 20, but everybody assumed he would hit more home runs.  Nobody thought that would be his last home run.”

Also in 2007, a group of engineers and students from UW-Milwaukee worked to calculate the exact spot where Aaron’s final homer landed so the Brewers could mark the location with a commemorative plaque.  County Stadium was long gone, having been replaced by Miller Park – but not in the same spot.  The former County Stadium grandstand was now part of Parking Lot 1 close to Helfaer Field.  The engineers used a combination of aerial photos of both Miller Park and County Stadium, plus studied the film of Aaron’s homer frame by frame to determine the exact landing position.

Team officials decided to place the marking where the ball was touched by the fan, rather than where it eventually wound up.  The thinking was the marking should denote where the flight of the ball officially ended.  It was announced the coordinates were N 43 degrees 1.821 minutes/W 87 degrees 58.347 minutes and the ball traveled 363 feet.

On June 7, 2007, the plaque was unveiled and dedicated with Aaron in attendance.  He said, “The city of Milwaukee and its fans have provided countless memories and I am fortunate to have played 14 professional seasons in this city.  My wife Billye and I truly enjoy coming back to visit Milwaukee. This is a very meaningful gesture on behalf of the Brewers organization.”

Hank Aaron hit 420 home runs in a Milwaukee uniform and of course some were more memorable than others.  His final home run wasn’t memorable until long afterward when fans and team officials realized it was truly the last one from Hammerin’ Hank.  If you haven’t seen the memorial plaque, it’s worth a detour into that section of parking lot to check out.  I took a Miller Park tour in 2008 and the tour guide actually pointed out the plaque’s location out of the park windows, which was cool to see from the club level vantage point.

You can see video of Hank Aaron’s final home run here.

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