Monday, April 7, 2014

Hank's home run No. 715 ... I was there

      (First of two parts)
      I was there; I saw it happen live at Atlanta Stadium. It is the most significant sports event I have witnessed, and I don't mind bragging about being in the stands.
      Forty years ago Tuesday night -- Monday, April 8, 1974 -- Henry Aaron hit one of baseball's most memorable home runs: No. 715 of his major-league career.
      Hank beat The Babe. Finally.
      In the words of Atlanta Braves' play-by-play announcer Milo Hamilton as Aaron turned past second base on his greatest home-run trot: " ... There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron."
       I have witnesses I was there -- my good friends, the Tucker family of Clarkston, Ga. (our connection was their house was my "home away from home" just around the block for several years in the old neighborhood -- Sunset Acres in Shreveport).
      We were there together that night, with great seats, just to the left of home plate high in the lower deck and very proud to have been among 53,775 paid spectators.
      I was determined to see Hank hit No. 715 and eclipse the supposed "untouchable" 714 of Babe Ruth. I was prepared to watch 14 consecutive Atlanta Braves games, if that's what it took.
      It was an idea formulated over the off-season between 1973 and 1974, and it took (1) a lot of help and (2) good luck.
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      The idea was inspired two men and two events.
      The first was Jack Fiser. In his farewell column as sports editor of The Shreveport Times in 1962, he wrote about figuratively -- maybe literally -- hanging out of the Tiger Stadium press box after Billy Cannon's Halloween punt return against Ole Miss (the greatest play in LSU football history) and LSU's goalline stand at the end of that game.
       The second was Irv Zeidman, the 1950s/'60s Shreveport Sports baseball/Centenary basketball play-by-play announcer and later an excellent Tevye in a Shreveport production of Fiddler on the Roof. I remember him telling me that he was at Yankee Stadium for Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series in 1956.
         Of course, the tale is that there are 500,000 who claim to be part of the 64,519 (paid) at Yankee Stadium that day.  But if IZ told me he was there, I believed it.
          I wanted my own monumental moment. Mr. Aaron would provide.
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          First piece of luck: Hank ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs -- one short of The Babe. He hit No. 713 in the Braves' next-to-last game of '73; in the season finale, he went 3-for-4 ... but no home run.  So the world spent all winter waiting for his first two home runs of the '74 season.
          The decades-long speculation of whether anyone would ever top Babe's record -- the most talked-about baseball subject of our lifetime, in my opinion, with only Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier as a challenger -- had really ramped up in the 1972 season.
          The most likely challengers -- Mantle, Williams, Frank Robinson and Mays -- had all come up short with age, injury, service time stepping in. Aaron had been in the majors since 1954, a huge all-around talent, but quiet and maybe even somewhat underappreciated. He had not been talked about that much in the home-run chase for years, but he just kept hitting 'em out of the park.
           He had seven seasons with 40 or more home runs and the realization that Aaron, not Mays, would be the one to break the record came finally came in 1971 when Hank hit a career-high 47.
           In 1972, when he passed Mays with homer No. 649, there was no one between him and The Babe. The chase was in the final stretch. But I still didn't dream I'd get a chance to see No. 715.
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            Second piece of luck: The 1974 National League schedule. As soon as I saw it, I knew there was a chance. The Braves opened with three games in Cincinnati, then had 10 in a row in Atlanta ... and the next four in Houston.
             So I could go to Atlanta for all those games and, if necessary, fly to Houston, where I'd often seen games at the Astrodome. All I had to do was make the arrangements.
             Now for the help.
             -- Bill McIntyre, sports editor of The Times and my boss, said he would let me take my two weeks of vacation that year in April, with days off at the front and back ends, too.
              -- The Braves' and Astros' public-relations departments. This was still an era when baseball PR departments provided free tickets upon request, if available, to sports department people. I had done that for Astros, Braves and Texas Rangers' games for a decade; so had many others. It was an era when newspapers didn't have ethical rules about that, and when baseball crowds weren't so huge, not was the game's financial status.
               So the Braves and Astros were willing to give me two comp tickets for every game of my possible 14-game journey ... except the home opener in Atlanta, for which there was great demand.
              -- The Tuckers were willing to put up with me, and give me a place to stay, for 10 days. I had made trips to Atlanta, and stayed with them, on at least three vacations in the previous seven years. Like I said above, they were my second family.
               And because we knew I couldn't get comp tickets for the Braves' home opener, they purchased five tickets for that night.
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Hank Aaron arrives at home plate after career home run No. 714 ... this was
 in Cincinnati on Opening Day, 1974 (photo from mearsonliveauctions.com)
              Third piece of luck: Hank Aaron did not hit two home runs in the first three games of the 1974 season in Cincinnati. But he did hit No. 714 to tie the Babe -- on his first at-bat of the season.
              I was still in Shreveport at that point, happy for Hank, dismayed that my plan was going to be foiled. I was catching a flight to Atlanta the next day.
              After that, we had to sweat out six at-bats against the Reds. No rooting against him, of course, but just hoping he'd keep the ball in the ballpark at Riverfront Stadium.
             In the season opener, he had three more at-bats after his first-inning homer off Jack Billingham before he came out of the game. Groundout to third, walk, flyout to center ... pulled from the game.
             Because the Braves, especially manager Eddie Mathews (Hank's teammate for 13 years, the first 12 in Milwaukee), wanted to see the record broken in Atlanta, they held Aaron out of the season's second game. That so irritated Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that, citing his stiff-necked "best interest of baseball" clause, he ordered them to play him the next day in Cincinnati.
             So on that Sunday, as I attended my first National Hockey League game -- the second-year Atlanta Flames' regular-season finale at The Omni against the Pittsburgh Penguins -- Aaron was in the lineup against the Reds.
             The hockey game was fun; my friends had season tickets and an on-site tutorial for me. But the baseball game was on TV in the concourse area, so every time we knew Aaron was going to bat, we ran up there to watch.
             Hank struck out looking in the second inning, struck out looking in the third, and grounded out to third in the fifth. Then -- mercifully -- he was pulled from the game for a defensive replacement (in left field) after the top of the seventh.
             He was coming home to Atlanta for No. 715. How lucky for us, and Braves' fans.
             Next: "A great moment for all of us" (Part II)
 

4 comments:

  1. From Louis DeLuca: You are my hero -- wish I could have been there, but I was going to high school. Aaron was my boyhood hero, and I was locked into this situation.

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  2. From Leo Van Thyn: Lucky you. I watched it on TV.

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  3. From Tim Looney: Pretty cool that you were there, Nico. I have to admit, though, that I did not consider Aaron the greatest HR hiiter just because he broke Ruth's record. He was a great player, no doubt. But he wasn't even the best HR hitter on his own team (Eddie Mathews was). And he is not even in the top 30 in career HR per AB stats. The fact that he played at a high level for so long was certainly a feat, however.

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  4. From Chuck Baker: Just saw this quote from Dick Pound -- a Montreal attorney and former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency -- and it resonated after your blog about seeing Aaron set the record. The quote: "Barry Bonds has a number. Henry Aaron has a record."

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