George Plimpton has played quarterback for the Detroit Lions and been bashed in the nose by old Archie Moore, but for some reason he was not pitching last week in Atlanta when Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run. Plimpton might have pitched if he had been asked—he could have used a moment's relaxation—but instead he stood amid the cheers with furrowed brow, searching for an original approach to one of the most publicized sports events of the century. His account of Aaron's ordeal and triumph begins on page 82.
For Plimpton, the assignment began last September when Senior Editor Pat Ryan suggested he cover the countdown, following Aaron from Los Angeles to Houston to Atlanta to observe the last home runs leading to No. 715. The 712th was hit while Plimpton was traveling 80 mph in a cab on his way from the airport to Houston's Astrodome, yelling, "Faster, faster!" He did see 713 in Atlanta, but, with the rest of the country, including Aaron, had to wait until this year for the big ones.
Plimpton passed an impatient winter, filling some of the time doing research on other momentous home runs, and in spring training had his first personal interview with Aaron. "He is an intensely shy and private person," Plimpton says, "but being so honest, after a while he divulges these fascinating bits about himself and his craft." George was so impressed by Aaron that he reacted indignantly to suggestions in the press that Henry did not really try to hit a homer in the game at Cincinnati that he was ordered to play in by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
"It's absurd to suggest that Hank Aaron didn't put out," he says. "He always does. He's such a professional. All through the enormous pressure before he broke the record, he comported himself with great distinction."
April 21, 1974
The pressure was everywhere. Plimpton says, "I couldn't believe what the Braves' locker room looked like, both in Cincinnati and Atlanta. You could barely see the players for the pads and pencils."
In doing his research Plimpton became fascinated by the people in the background when famous home runs were hit—the announcers who told of them, the pitchers who served them up. Ralph Branca, victim of the most dramatic home run ever, Bobby Thomson's, expressed sympathy for the pitchers involved. But the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing, who gave up Aaron's record breaker, did not need it. "After the game," Plimpton says, "Downing assured me he wasn't going to jump out of a window. Like Aaron, he's a professional."
Plimpton would not be jumping, either. Since the home run came on a Monday night, he had a few days to put his story together. But there was some concern for Associate Editor Ron Fimrite, who was also in Atlanta. Our coverage was to be in two parts, a news story by Fimrite last week and a longer, more reflective one by Plimpton in this issue. When Aaron failed to hit No. 715 in Cincinnati that controversial Sunday, Fimrite wrote his story on the chase to that point in order to meet our regular weekly deadline. But when Henry did hit the record breaker Monday night, Fimrite's original story was scrapped and he hurriedly wrote a new one, our major news story last week, End of the Glorious Ordeal.
In retrospect, it was a three-sided ordeal: Aaron's, Plimpton's, Fimrite's. Henry came through splendidly, and we think Plimpton and Fimrite did mighty well, too.