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Historic Homer In Groundskeeper’s Safe Deposit Box

August 26, 1996

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ The last ball that Hank Aaron hit over a fence more than 20 years ago isn’t on display in Cooperstown, and it’s not on a mantle in his den.

Home run ball No. 755 is tucked into an Albuquerque, N.M., safe deposit box rented by Richard Arndt, who retrieved the historic homer at Milwaukee County Stadium on July 20, 1976.

The next day, Arndt was fired from his part-time job on the grounds crew for taking the ball home instead of returning it to the Milwaukee Brewers, the team Aaron ended his career with after playing for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves.

Aaron was injured soon after hitting his final homer, and baseball’s career home run king retired without trotting the bases again.

The following spring, Arndt, who grew up in Madison and counted Aaron as his childhood hero, moved with his wife and two small children to New Mexico.

Today, he works for a furniture company and as a groundskeeper for the Albuquerque Dukes baseball team.

And for the last 20 years, he’s held onto a piece of baseball history.

``It shouldn’t be sitting in a vault in an Albuquerque bank, I’ll tell you that,″ Arndt said. ``It belongs in Cooperstown or with Hank Aaron.″

``Then why won’t he part with it?″ Aaron responded. ``It means more to me than it does to him. He didn’t hit it out. I did. And he was an employee, not a fan, so he had no right to keep the ball. He took Brewers property.

``Legally, I think it belongs to me. I think he’s trying to hold me hostage,″ added Aaron, who will visit Milwaukee on Friday for a luncheon celebrating _ albeit a month late _ the 20th anniversary of his final homer.

Arndt’s job in 1976 was to sit near the left-field foul pole during games and open the gate for a cart that would bring in relievers from the bullpen.

When Aaron homered off California’s Dick Drago before a crowd of 10,134, the ball landed in an empty seat 20 feet from Arndt.

Harry Gill, the head groundskeeper, said he couldn’t keep the ball. The Brewers offered Arndt a photo of him returning it to Aaron, a different ball autographed by Aaron and one of Aaron’s bats.

Arndt said he wanted to think about it overnight, and he left without returning the ball. He was fired the next day.

``They said I’d been terminated for taking Brewers property,″ Arndt said.

The club deducted $5 from his last paycheck.

Arndt took the ball to the stadium later that summer. Aaron refused to sign it, but told Arndt he wanted to talk to him about getting it back. He didn’t, though, and returned to Atlanta when the season ended.

Ten years later, an agent for Aaron called Arndt and put him in touch with a collector who offered him $5,000. Not enough, said Arndt, who was leery about the ball ending up on the memorabilia market.

In his autobiography, ``I Had A Hammer,″ Aaron said he calls Arndt every few years to try to buy the ball and that he’s offered as much as $10,000.

``To me, that ball is just as important as the one from number 715,″ Aaron wrote, ``because it’s the one that established the record. The record is 755, not 715.″

Arndt heartily agrees.

``When I was a kid, the number that stuck in my mind was No. 714,″ he said, referring to Babe Ruth’s career home run mark that Aaron broke on April 8, 1974. ``To a lot of kids, 714 was a magic number. I think today’s generation will remember 755.″

Aaron said that because Arndt took the ball home with him that night, nobody else but Arndt would ever know for sure if he has the genuine ball.

``I guess there will always be doubt. He could have dropped it, swapped it, sold it,″ Aaron said. ``But I know he got the ball that night, so I’ve tried many times to get it back.″

Arndt said he hopes somebody will buy the ball one day and give it to Aaron or donate it the Hall of Fame. But he quickly adds: ``I’m not sure I want to part with it right now.″

And he doesn’t want Aaron’s money.

``I don’t think he should have to pay for it. I wouldn’t feel right,″ Arndt said. ``But I’m not prepared to give it to Hank at this point, either.″

Arndt said he’s never profited from his prize.

``I never take it out of the vault,″ he said.

But he’s not even sure what might sway him to part with it.

``Some people have said it’s worth six figures maybe. I’ve never tried to market it. To most people in this world, it’s just a $6 baseball,″ Arndt said. ``But to some, it’s a lot more than that.″

Arndt once envisioned the ball paying for his children’s college education, but now he wonders if it will sit in the bank for another 20 years.

``I know it’s bigger than a safe deposit box in Albuquerque,″ he said. ``I think it really belongs in Cooperstown or with Hank. If Hank and I could get together, maybe something could get done. I don’t know.″

``I’d love to get it, but I’ve pretty much given up on it,″ Aaron said. ``What’s he going to do, keep it another 40 years and when I die, say, `Oh, this belonged to Hank’? ″

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