Before he became an on-screen legend, Craig Sager was on the periphery of history
Long before his face (and his suits) became a familiar sight for basketball fans, Craig Sager was a 22-year-old reporter for a Florida radio station, WSPB in Sarasota, that carried Braves games. The year was 1974 and Hank Aaron was nearing Babe Ruth’s career home record of 714.
Aaron hit No. 714 in the season opener, on the road in Cincinnati, and Sager decided he had to be in Atlanta for the Braves’ first homestand of the year.
He only had one shot to see Aaron hit the record-breaking homer. With rain in the forecast and the 40-year-old Aaron in the declining stage of his career, that was surely no guarantee.
“I just knew he was going to do it that day,” Sager told Rich Eisen in July. “My boss told me, ‘Well, you can go but you better be back by drive-time tomorrow or you’re fired.’”
There was no room in the press box for the fresh Northwestern graduate, so he was pushed down to the field level. All the photographers set up shop in the photo well on the first-base side to get the best angle of Aaron’s righthanded swing, leaving Sager all by himself in the photographers’ well behind third base.
Sager stayed there, giving play-by-play commentary into the tape recorder he brought along, until Aaron stepped to the plate in the fourth inning.
If you look closely in the video above, you can see Sager in his tan trenchcoat run up with his microphone and get the first interview with Aaron.
What would have happened if Sager had done that today? “I’d be shot,” he told Yahoo jokingly in 2014. But his spontaneous decision to dash onto the field allowed Sager to capture some important history—the real-time reaction everyone around Aaron. He wrote about the scene for Bleacher Report in 2015.
I captured history with recordings from his breathless teammate Tom House ("Here's the ball, Henry, here's the ball"), his crying mother ("I knew he'd do it...ohhhh...I knew he'd do it") and an emotionally spent Aaron ("Thank you...thank you...thank you...I just thank God it's all over").
Craig Sagar was there when I crossed the plate for #715 & has been a friend ever since.I thought the world of him & he will be sorely missed— Hank Aaron (@HenryLouisAaron) December 15, 2016
“That summer I went to the MLB All-Star Game in Pittsburgh and met up with Hank with the express purpose of giving him a copy of the tape with my call, but most importantly the interviews as well,” Sager wrote for Bleacher Report. “At first Aaron thought I was seeking an autograph, and he showed little interest in listening.
“But then the historic moment and unique surroundings came back to him, and he blurted out, ‘You're the kid with the trench coat and tape recorder.’”
Sager asked Aaron what he wanted to do with the tape and they decided it should go to the Hall of Fame, where it still plays on a loop in the exhibit on Aaron’s homer.