Tuesday, April 8, 2014

'A great moment for all of us'

      (Second of two parts)
      I saw the moment live in the stadium, and I've seen it hundreds of times on television or on my computer. It still brings chill bumps.
      I've had more sports thrills than many people; it is a lengthy list. That night at Atlanta Stadium, 40 years ago tonight, when Hank Aaron hit home run No. 715 and broke Babe Ruth's unbreakable record, had me literally jumping on my seat.
      Proof that I was there: The certificate handed out to spectators at the stadium that night, and the Atlanta newspapers from the next day.
       Maybe it wasn't the greatest moment of Aaron's baseball life -- he was on a World Series championship team, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, a season he was the National League's Most Valuable Player that year -- but little doubt it was the greatest of his 755 career MLB home runs.
        It was a home run heard and seen around the country, and the world.
        There were three significant play-by-play calls of the moment -- Braves announcer Milo Hamilton, NBC-TV's Curt Gowdy, and Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. Hamilton's is the most replayed version. Scully, in my opinion the greatest sports announcer of our lifetime, sets the best scene (again, my opinion). I will end this piece with his commentary.
         What I remember most is the explosion of noise at the realization that the ball was going over the left-field fence and then the mob scene at home plate and the ceremonies thereafter.
         And, as you see it again, the joy and relief on Hank Aaron's face. The quiet, graceful man was the most-deserved king of baseball that night. He remains royalty to this day; he always will.
         In Part I, I told the story of why and how I was there that night.  Some other recollections ...
         -- As some of my friends like to kid me, I can connect most anything to my hometown of 25 years, Shreveport.  The Braves that season (1974) had six ex-Shreveport Braves players on their roster. Three of them were starters that night -- third baseman Darrell Evans, center fielder Dusty Baker and right fielder Ralph Garr. One was a reserve shortstop, Leo Foster. Two were pitchers, Carl Morton and Tom House.
         -- It was House, who pitched the first game in 1968 when Shreveport returned to pro baseball after a six-year absence, who caught Aaron's home run on the fly in the Braves' bullpen and carried to home plate to present it to Hank.
         -- Garr was the Braves' leadoff batter that night. The very fast young man (nickname: "The Roadrunner"), one of our favorites because he was from Ruston, La., and a superstar at Grambling College the year I was a freshman at Louisiana Tech, was sensational that season, the National League batting champ with a .353 average.
         -- Dusty (actually Johnnie B.) Baker, who played in Shreveport at age 20, wound up the 1974 season with the exact numbers as Aaron (20 home runs, 69 RBI). He was the on-deck batter when Hank connected for 715. Wearing No. 12 and down on one knee, Dusty raises up and raises his left hand as he starts toward the plate.
         -- Evans was the man on base when Aaron -- who had drawn a walk in the first inning -- hit the home run in the third and tied the score 3-3.
         -- The pitcher who gave up the home run (it's an easy trivia question) was a personal favorite, Dodgers left-hander Al Downing. For seven seasons, starting in 1963, he was a regular for my team, the Yankees (72-57 record, two big World Series losses).
         -- After giving up the home run to Aaron, Downing faced only one more batter (the Braves scored four runs in the inning en route to a 7-4 victory). The guy who relieved, Mike Marshall, that season would be the majors' best relief pitcher, the NL Cy Young Award winner and leader of a pennant-winning Dodgers team.
         -- Phil Niekro was the Braves' pitching ace (as he was for a decade), but that night's starting and winning pitcher was Ron Reed, the ex-Notre Dame basketball and baseball star.
         -- The Braves' team included two future major-league managers of note -- catcher Johnny Oates and second baseman Davey Johnson. Forgettable starters that night: catcher Vic Correll, first baseman Mike Lum and shortstop Craig Robinson.
         -- This for my umpiring buddies: The crew was Satch Davidson, Frank Pulli, Ed Sudol and big Lee Weyer.
        -- The Dodgers' left fielder, the guy who jumped and leaned over the fence trying to catch the ball, was Bill Buckner. You might remember him for another baseball moment.
        -- The Dodgers' starting infield that night was the same as it was for a very successful decade: Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at shortstop, Ron Cey (The Penguin) at third. One other notable starter: Jimmy Wynn -- the "Toy Cannon" and former Astros star -- in center field.
        -- It was only a so-so Braves team, 88-74 record, third in the NL West. The manager, Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews, was fired after 99 games (50-49). Clyde King replaced him.
        -- The Braves' general manager was Eddie Robinson (from Paris, Texas), who succeeded Paul Richards in that job and went from Atlanta to be GM of the Texas Rangers. The farm director was Bill Lucas, who was Hank Aaron's brother-in-law, succeeded Robinson in the GM position (to become the first black GM in the majors) and died in 1979, far too young at 43.
        Milo Hamilton's call:
         "He's sitting on 714. Here's the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There's a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be ... out of here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home-run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron.
         "The fireworks are going. Henry Aaron is coming around third. His teammates are at home plate, and listen to this crowd."
        After a moment of silence, Hamilton continued: "A sellout crowd is cheering. Henry Aaron, the home-run king of all time. 715 came on a one-ball, no-strike count. It was into left-center. Bill Buckner, the left fielder, tried to go up and get it. He climbed the fence, he couldn't get it.
        "This crowd is going crazy. Now Henry is over by his lovely wife, Billye, over by his parents and the rest of his family."
        Curt Gowdy's call:
        "There's a long drive. Ball's hit deep. Deep. It is gone! He did it! He did it! Henry Aaron is the all-time home run leader now. ... Listen to this (crowd)! He did it!
        Vin Scully's call:
        "... One ball and no strikes. Aaron waiting. The outfield deep and straight away. Fastball. There's a high drive into deep left-center field. Buckner goes back, to the fence ... it is gone!"
        And then Scully lets the moment sink in, with one minute and 45 seconds of silence (I timed this on a YouTube clip. You. (Fireworks going off).
        When he speaks again, he sums it up wonderfully:
        “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. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.
        "And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves but by his father and mother. He threw his arms around his father and as he left the home-plate area, his mother came running across the grass, threw her arms around his neck, kissed him for all she was worth.
       "As Aaron circled the bases, the Dodgers on the infield shook his hand, and that was a memorable moment. Aaron is being mobbed by photographers, he's holding his right hand high in the air and for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
        "It is over. At 10 minutes after 9 in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth."
          There is more from Scully, but I'll end here. Except to add that being in the stadium that night is something I hope to never forget, and to know that the next time I watch the moment, the chill bumps will be there again.


  1. From Ed English: Good stuff.
    I heard one other bit of trivia about that night while driving in this morning. Aaron walked on his first at-bat and came around to score. Supposedly, that broke Willie Mays’ NL career record for most runs scored. Two major records in one night.
    I did a big feature on Aaron when I worked at the Florida Times-Union. At that point, he was either the Braves’ farm director or director of personnel ... or something along those lines. All I remember about the article was my lead was: “The Hammer has become the Axe.”

  2. From Pesky Hill: I really enjoyed the two blogs on Hank Aaron. My National League team has always been the Braves, but I do root for the Astros when they are decent. Never really had an American League team until the Rangers came to Arlington.
    I might have told you this before -- Carol and I were in the stands the night Hank hit No. 700. That was a thrill, too.

  3. From John James Marshall: Great cranks on The Hammer. Thoroughly enjoyed both. I've always stunned people when I told them I knew a guy who was there. Never knew the complete back story.
    Now go downstairs and do the corrections for the (Shreveport Journal) city edition.

  4. From O.K. "Buddy" Davis: Loved your blogs on Hammerin' Hank. Little known or semi-known tidbit: it was Hank who presented Ralph Allen Garr for induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.

  5. From Tim Palmer: I was there, too. What a great moment. I sat on the field level, third-base side, about two sections toward the outfield past the dugout. What a true privilege to see such an accomplishment.