Henry Aaron's ordeal ended at 9:07 p.m. Monday.
It ended in a carnival atmosphere that would have been more congenial to the man he surpassed as baseball's alltime home-run champion. But it ended. And for that, as Aaron advised the 53,775 Atlanta fans who came to enshrine him in the game's pantheon, "Thank God."
Aaron's 715th home run came in the fourth inning of the Braves' home opener with Los Angeles, off the Dodgers' Al Downing, a lefthander who had insisted doggedly before the game that for him this night would be "no different from any other." He was wrong, for now he joins a company of victims that includes Tom Zachary (Babe Ruth's 60th home run in 1927), Tracy Stallard (Roger Maris's 61st in 1961), and Guy Bush (Ruth's 714th in 1935). They are destined to ride in tandem through history with their assailants.
Downing's momentous mistake was a high fastball into Aaron's considerable strike zone. Aaron's whip of a bat lashed out at it and snapped it in a high arc toward the 385-foot sign in left-centerfield. Dodgers centerfielder Jimmy Wynn and leftfielder Bill Buckner gave futile chase, Buckner going all the way to the six-foot fence for it. But the ball dropped over the fence in the midst of a clutch of Braves' relief pitchers who scrambled out of the bullpen in pursuit. Buckner started to go over the fence after the ball himself, but gave up after he realized he was outnumbered. It was finally retrieved by reliever Tom House, who even as Aaron triumphantly rounded the bases ran hysterically toward home plate holding the ball aloft. It was, after all, one more ball than Babe Ruth ever hit over a fence, and House is a man with a sense of history.
April 14, 1974
House arrived in time to join a riotous spectacle at the plate. Aaron, his normally placid features exploding in a smile, was hoisted by his teammates as Downing and the Dodger infielders moved politely to one side. Aaron shook hands with his father Herbert, and embraced his mother Estella. He graciously accepted encomiums from his boss, Braves Board Chairman Bill Bartholomay, and Monte Irvin, representing Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was unaccountably in Cleveland this eventful night. Kuhn is no favorite of Atlanta fans and when his name was mentioned by Irvin, the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game in Atlanta booed lustily.
"I just thank God it's all over," said Aaron, giving credit where it is not entirely due.
No, this was Henry Aaron's evening, and if the Braves' management overdid it a bit with the balloons, the fireworks, the speeches and all-round hoopla, who is to quibble? There have not been many big baseball nights in this football-oriented community and those few have been supplied by Aaron.
Before the game the great man did look a trifle uncomfortable while being escorted through lines of majorettes as balloons rose in the air above him. There were signs everywhere—MOVE OVER BABE—and the electronic scoreboard blinked HANK. Much of center field was occupied by a massive map of the United States painted on the grass as an American flag. This map-flag was the site of a pregame "This Is Your Life" show, featuring Aaron's relatives, friends and employers. Sammy Davis Jr. was there, and Pearl Bailey, singing the national anthem in Broadway soul, and Atlanta's black mayor, Maynard Jackson, and Governor Jimmy Carter, and the Jonesboro High School band, and the Morris Brown College choir, and Chief Noc-A-Homa, the Braves' mascot, who danced with a fiery hoop.
This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly. Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it. He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.
Before this most important game of his career he joked at the batting cage with teammate Dusty Baker, a frequent foil, while hordes of newsmen scrambled around him, hanging on every banality. When a young red-haired boy impudently shouted, "Hey, Hank Aaron, come here, I want you to sign this," Aaron looked incredulous, then laughed easily. The poor youngster was very nearly mobbed by sycophants for approaching the dignitary so cavalierly.
Downing, too, seemed unaware that he was soon to be a party to history. "I will pitch to Aaron no differently tonight," said he, as the band massed in rightfield. "I'll mix my pitches up, move the locations. If I make a mistake, it's no disgrace. I don't think the pitcher should take the glory for No. 715. He won't deserve any accolades. I think people will remember the pitcher who throws the last one he ever hits, not the 715th."
Downing's "mistake" was made with nobody out in the fourth inning and with Darrell Evans, the man preceding Aaron in the Braves' batting order, on first base following an error by Dodger shortstop Bill Russell. Downing had walked Aaron leading off the second inning to the accompaniment of continuous booing by the multitudes. Aaron then scored on a Dodger error, the run breaking Willie Mays' all-time National League record for runs scored (after the home run, Aaron had 2,064).
This time, with a man on base, Downing elected to confront him mano-a-mano. His first pitch, however, hit the dirt in front of the plate. The next hit the turf beyond the fence in leftfield.
"It was a fastball down the middle of the upper part of the plate," Downing lamented afterward. "I was trying to get it down to him, but I didn't. He's a great hitter. When he picks his pitch, he's pretty certain that's the pitch he's looking for. Chances are he's gonna hit it pretty good. When he did hit it, I didn't think it was going out because I was watching Wynn and Buckner. But the ball just kept carrying and carrying."
It was Aaron's first swing of the game—and perhaps the most significant in the history of baseball. It was also typical of Aaron's sense of economy. On Opening Day in Cincinnati, against the Reds' Jack Billingham, he tied Ruth with his first swing of the new season. But this event, noteworthy though it may have been, was merely a prelude, and Aaron recognized it as such.
"Seven-fourteen only ties the record," he advised well-wishers at the time. And in yet another ceremony at home plate, he reminded everyone, "It's almost over."
Aaron's innate dignity had been jarred in that opening three-game series by the seemingly irresolvable haggling between his employers Bartholomay and manager Eddie Mathews, and Commissioner Kuhn. Bartholomay and Mathews had hoped to keep Aaron out of the lineup for the entire series so that he might entertain the home fans with his immortal swats. When Kuhn suggested forcefully that it was the obligation of every team to put its best lineup on the field at all times and that any violation of this obligation would be regarded by him as sinful, Mathews and Bartholomay relented—but only partially. After Aaron tied the Babe, Mathews announced that he would bench him for the remaining games of the Reds' series, saving him for the adoring home folks.
This brought an iron rebuke from the commissioner: Aaron would play or Mathews and the Braves must face "serious consequences." This message was delivered after the Saturday game, in which Aaron did not play. Aaron was in the lineup for 6 1/2 innings on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding weakly to third in three at bats. The stage—and a stage it seemed—was set for Monday night.
It rained in Atlanta during the day, violently on occasion, but it was warm and cloudy by game time. It began raining again just before Aaron's first inconsequential time at bat, as if Ruth's phantom were up there puncturing the drifting clouds. Brightly colored umbrellas sprouted throughout the ball park, a brilliant display that seemed to be merely part of the show. The rain had subsided by Aaron's next time up, the air filled now only with tension. Henry wasted little time relieving that tension. It is his way. Throughout his long career Aaron had been faulted for lacking a sense of drama, for failing to rise to critical occasions, as Mays, say, or Ted Williams had. He quietly endured such spurious criticism, then in two memorable games dispelled it for all time. And yet, after it was over, he was Henry Aaron again.
"Right now," he said without a trace of irony, "it feels like just another home run. I felt all along if I got a strike I could hit it out. I just wanted to touch all the bases on this one."
He smiled slightly, conscious perhaps that his words were not sufficient to the occasion. Then he said what he had been wanting to say since it became apparent that he would eventually pass Ruth and achieve immortality.
"I feel I can relax now. I feel my teammates can relax. I feel I can have a great season."
It is not that he had ever behaved like anyone but Henry Aaron. For this generation of baseball fans and now for generations to come, that will be quite enough.