It was a simple act by an unassuming man that touched an enormous circle of people, indeed an entire country. It provided an instant that people would remember for decades—exactly what they were doing at the time of the home run that beat Babe Ruth's great record, whether they were watching it on a television set, or heard it over the car radio while driving along the turnpike at night, or even whether a neighbor leaned over a fence and told them about it the next morning.
For those who sat in the stadium in Atlanta, their recollections would be more intimate—the sharp cork-popping sound of the bat hitting the ball, startlingly audible in the split second of suspense before the crowd began a roar that lasted for more than 10 minutes. Perhaps that is what they would remember—how people stood in front of their scats and sucked in air and bellowed it out in a sustained tribute that few athletes have ever received. Or perhaps they would remember their wonder at how easy and inevitable it seemed—that having opened the season in Cincinnati by hitting the tying home run, No. 714, with his first swing of the year, it was obviously appropriate that the man who has been called Supe (for Superman) by his teammates was going to duplicate the feat in Atlanta with his first swing of that game. That was why 53,775 had come. Or perhaps they would remember the odd way the stadium emptied after the excitement of the fourth inning, as if the crowd felt that what it had seen would be diluted by sitting through any more baseball that night.
And then finally there were those few in the core of that immense circle—the participants themselves—who would be the ones most keenly touched: the pitcher, in this case a pleasant, gap-toothed veteran named Al Downing, who, of the more than 100 National League pitchers, happened to be the one who threw a fastball at a certain moment that did not tail away properly; the hitter, Henry Aaron, for whom the event, despite his grace in dealing with it, had become so traumatic that he relished little in the instant except the relief that it was done; the Braves' announcer, Milo Hamilton, whose imagination for months had been working up words to describe the event to the outside world; and a young bullpen pitcher, Tom House, who would reach up in the air and establish contact with a ball whose monetary value as baseball's greatest talisman was pegged at $25,000 and whose sentimental value was incalculable....
April 10, 1994
The poor guy. All those years toiling on the mound, peering down the long alley toward the plate at those constant disturbers of his sense of well-being settling into their stances and flicking their bats—and then to look down one day and find Henry Aaron there, the large, peaceful, dark face with the big eyes and the high forehead, and to know that one mistake, one small lapse of concentration, would place the pitcher's name forever in the record books as having thrown the "immortal gopher."
Perhaps there are some pitchers around the league who would not mind being identified with Aaron's eclipsing of Ruth's record. Tracy Stallard, who was a young Boston Red Sox rookie when he gave up the home run to Roger Maris that broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 hit in a year, afterward rather enjoyed the back-of-the-hand notoriety that came with being a victim of Maris's clout, and he would announce, to the point of volunteering, that he was the pitcher responsible. Most pitchers, though, are sensitive enough about their craft to feel differently about such a role. Ray Sadecki once said of Stallard, "I don't want to be him. Everybody knows who he is. Nobody knows where he is."
Those scheduled in the rotation against the Atlanta Braves in the final weeks of last season and the opening days of the 1974 schedule were uncomfortably aware that they were involved in a sort of cosmic game of Russian roulette, it being inevitable that one of them was going to give up the 715th home run.
The pitcher opposing Aaron in Atlanta on the last day of the 1973 season was Houston Astro lefthander Dave Roberts. Before the game he sat in front of his locker looking crestfallen. "What I should be doing is concentrating on my 17th victory of the year," he said. "But I've been thinking about him. I thought about him all last night. He was just deposited there in my mind. What really got me was that I knew he wasn't thinking about me at all. I wished I'd known his home telephone number, so's I could have called him every 20 minutes—'How's it going, Hank?'—just to let him know I was around."
In that game Roberts survived three Aaron turns at bat by giving up three singles that raised the batter's average to .301. Then, perhaps with his nervous system betraying him, the pitcher pulled a muscle in his back in the middle of the seventh inning and was removed. In such a situation the relieving pitcher is allowed as much time as he wants to warm up. Don Wilson, Roberts's reliever, off whom Aaron had hit his 611th home run, said later that as he stood on the mound it crossed his mind just to keep on warming up indefinitely, shaking his head and saying, "No, not yet," to the umpire until the night fell and the moon came up, and perhaps at 10:30 the next morning some sort of statute of limitations would run out the season and he would be able to pack up and go home, sore-armed but assuaged.
The pitcher who through personal experience knows more about Aaron's specialty than anyone in baseball is the tall, sidearm, whip-motion Dodger righthander, Don Drysdale, now retired from active baseball and working as a broadcaster with the California Angels. [Drysdale died of a heart attack in July 1993.] Aaron hit the astonishing total of 17 home runs off him. Next down the line is Claude Osteen, who has been touched for 13, and when his rotation comes up against the Braves, Drysdale often calls him on the phone (the two were Dodger teammates) to remind him that Drysdale would be delighted to be taken off the hook for being Aaron's special patsy. ("Now, Claude, don't let down. That record is within reach.")
Drysdale has never felt it was possible to establish much of a "book" on how to pitch to Aaron. "Besides, there never is any set way to pitch to a great hitter," Drysdale says. "If there were, he'd be hitting .220. I always used to think that he had a lot of Stan Musial in his stance. From the pitcher's mound they both seem to coil at you. The only sensible thing—if you couldn't get the manager to let you skip a turn against him—was to mix the pitches and keep the ball low, and if you were pitching to spots, it was important to miss bad. If you missed good and the ball got in his power zone, sometimes you were glad it went out of the park and was not banged up the middle."
Drysdale remains in awe of the concussive nature of Aaron's power. He remembers a 250-foot home run Aaron duck-hooked over the short "Chinese Wall" screen in the Los Angeles Coliseum, hit so hard that Drysdale got a crick in his neck from turning abruptly to watch it go by. "It's bad enough to have him hit any home run off you—turning and looking and saying to yourself, 'My god, how far is that one going to go.' But with the Coliseum home run, I ended up not only in mental anguish but literally in physical pain."
At least Drysdale was not around to suffer the wrenching experience of facing Aaron at this stage in his career. As soon as Aaron was due at the plate, the crowd began to stir in anticipation. In the leftfield seats a forest of raised fishnets and gloved hands rose and swayed in expectation. The pitcher was practically the only person in the park who did not want to see the home run hit.
The next presentiment that the pitcher had to deal with was the flurry of activity from the umpires as Aaron left the on-deck circle and approached the plate. Since home run No. 710, a ball boy had been rushing out to provide an umpire with a clutch of specially marked balls so that if the home run were hit, the ball could be positively identified to thwart a horde of people turning up for the $25,000 reward with fakes. Each ball was stamped, last year with an invisible diamond with a number within, this year with two sets of numbers, a marked pattern that lit up under a fluorescent lamp.
All of this could not do much to help the pitcher's confidence—the scurrying preparations of those attending to an execution. Last year Juan Marichal saw this activity, the plate umpire reaching in a special ball bag at his waist to introduce a special ball to the game, and not being aware of the procedure, Marichal felt that he was the victim of some odd plot, that perhaps the ball he would get from the umpire was going to pop in two and emit smoke as he gripped it for his screwball. This year it was decided that the base umpire closest to the Braves' dugout would handle the marked balls.
The ball Aaron hit in Cincinnati with his first swing of the season (into a deep enclosure between the outfield fence and the stands known as the pit) was marked with a pair of 14's and 1's. It was recovered there by a policeman named Clarence Williams, holed up in his canyon with just a piece of sky overhead so that he never saw the home run ball until it came over the fence and bounced at his feet, spattering his uniform with mud. An attendant came rushing down the enclosure toward him, holding open a small paper bag and crying, "Drop it in here! Drop it in here!" And thus it was delivered to Aaron, the ball that tied Ruth's record, shielded as if contaminated from the view of the huge Opening Day crowd as the attendant, flanked by two guards, hurried in from centerfield.
Four days later in Atlanta, Al Downing handled two of the prepared balls. The first was marked with 12's and 1's, the 12 arbitrarily picked by Bill Acree, the Braves' equipment manager, and the 1 to show that it was the first of a series of 24 balls specially marked. Downing used it through the first inning, when he walked Aaron to massive hoots of derision. The same ball was tossed to him when Aaron came up again in the fourth. It was thrown out of the game after a pitch in the dirt. From the first base umpire, Frank Pulli, came a ball marked with a pair of 12's and two 2's.
Downing had realized in the middle of the previous week that he was to pitch the opener in Atlanta. It did not bother him much. Though he is not an overpowering pitcher, he has great confidence. He relies on fine control and a good change of pace. His teammates call him Ace, an encomium for winning 20 games in 1971. He is also called Gentleman Al, for his bearing not only off the field but around the mound, where he behaves, according to Vin Scully, the Los Angeles broadcaster, "like a man wearing a bowler hat." Downing is very much his own boss. He shakes off his catcher's signs as many as 25 times a game, relying on his own concepts and on his sense that much of pitching is feel. ("If you don't feel you can throw a curve at a particular time," he says, "there's not much point in trying.") He is such a student of his craft that he has always made it a point to room with a hitter, rare in a society in which there is such a confrontation between the two specialists.
"It helps a pitcher to be exposed to the enemy camp," Downing says. "For years I roomed with Maury Wills, and it helped my pitching considerably just listening to him talk about hitting.
"Aaron? Well, I'm not sure that rooming with him for 10 years would really help. You can have all the know-how, but if you make one small mistake, there's no one in the league who can take advantage of it like he does. He knows what I can throw. He hit two home runs off me last year. But I'm not going to change my pattern.... I shouldn't rearrange pitches that complement each other. If I throw 715, I'm not going to run and hide. There's no disgrace in that. On the other hand, I'm not going to run to the plate to congratulate him. It's a big home run for him, for the game, for the country, but not for me!"
On occasion, as Henry Aaron sits in the Braves' dugout, he takes off his baseball cap and holds it close against his face. He moves it around until he is able to peer through one of the vent holes in the crown of the cap at the opposing pitcher on the mound. The practice, like focusing through a telescope, serves to isolate the pitcher, setting him apart in a round frame so that Aaron can scrutinize him and decide how he will deal with him once he reaches the plate.
The thought process he goes through during this is deciding what sort of a pitch he will almost surely see, engraving the possibility in his mind's eye so that when the pitch comes he can truly rip at it. Home run hitters must invariably be guessers of some sort, since success at their craft depends on seeing a pitch come down that they expect, so they have time to generate a powerful swing. More than one pitcher has said that Aaron seems to hop on a pitch as if he had called for it. Ron Perranoski, the former Dodger relief pitcher (who in his first six seasons against Aaron held him to an .812 average, 13 for 16), once said, "He not only knows what the pitch will be, but where it will be."
Aaron describes his mental preparation as a process of elimination. "Suppose a pitcher has three good pitches: a fastball, a curve and a slider. What I do, after a lot of consideration and analyzing and studying, is to eliminate two of those pitches, since it's impossible against a good pitcher to keep all three possibilities on my mind at the plate. So in getting rid of two, for example, I convince myself that I'm going to get a fastball down low. When it comes, I'm ready. Now, I can have guessed wrong, and if I've set my mind for a fastball it's hard to do much with a curve short of nibbing it out over the infield. But the chances are that I'll eventually get what I'm looking for."
This procedure of "guessing" has many variants. Roger Maris, for example, always went up to the plate self-prepared to hit a fastball, feeling that he was quick enough to adjust to a different sort of pitch as it flew toward the plate. Most guess hitters play a cat-and-mouse game with the pitcher as the count progresses. What distinguishes Aaron's system is that once he makes up his mind what he will see during a time at bat, he never deviates. Aaron has disciplined himself to sit and wait for one sort of pitch, whatever the situation.
One might suppose that a pitcher with a large repertoire would trouble Aaron—and that indeed is the case. He shakes his head when he thinks of Marichal: "When he's at the prime of his game he throws a good fastball, a good screwball, a good changeup, a good slider, a good you-have-it...and obviously the elimination system can't work; you can't just throw out five or six different pitches in the hope of seeing the one you want; the odds of seeing it would be too much against the batter." What to do against a Marichal, then? "It's an extra challenge," Aaron says. "I've just got to tune up my bat a little higher. It's a question of confidence, knowing that the pitcher cannot get me out four times without me hitting the ball sharply somewhere."
It is this confrontation between pitcher and hitter that fascinates Aaron, and indeed it is what he likes best about baseball—what he calls "that damn good guessing game."
Obviously there have been the bad times. His manager in the mid-'50s, Fred Haney, was thinking of benching him against Drysdale, who was giving him fits in their early matchups. "I had a psychological block going there," Aaron says. "Drysdale was throwing from way out by third base with that sidearm motion of his, and he was mean, and it was hard to hang in there, knowing how mean he was. I had an awful lot of respect for him.
"So much of it has to do with concentration. On the day of a night game I begin concentrating at four in the afternoon. Just before I go to bat, from the on-deck circle, I can hear my little girl—she's 12 now—calling from the stands. 'Hey, Daddy! Hey, Daddy!' After the game she says to me, 'Hey, you never look around, Daddy, to wave.' Well, sometimes I look at her, I can't help it, but not too often. I'm looking at the pitcher. I'm thinking very hard about him. I started thinking about Al Downing of the Dodgers on the way home from Cincinnati. Basically, I knew what he would like me to hit—his fastball, which tails away and, if he's right, is his best pitch. I knew he didn't want to throw me curveballs, which from a lefthander would come inside, and which I could pull. So I set myself mentally for that one pitch I knew he'd rely on—his fastball. I can discipline myself to wait for that ball. I knew it would come sooner or later...."
There is nothing in Aaron's approach to the plate to suggest such an intensity of purpose. His stride is slow and lackadaisical. (He was called Snowshoes for a time by his teammates for the way he sort of pushes himself along.) He carries his batting helmet on his way to the plate, holding two bats in the other hand. He stares out at the pitcher. He drops the extra bat. Then, just out of the batting box, resting his bat on the ground with the handle end balanced against his thighs, he uses both hands to jostle the helmet correctly into position. He steps into the box. Even here there is no indication of the kinetic possibility, none of the ferocious tamping of his spikes to get a good toehold that one remembers of Willie Mays, say, or the quick switching of his bat back and forth as he waits. Aaron steps into the batting box as if he were going to sit down in it. Downing has said that looking at him during his delivery, he finds it hard to believe Aaron isn't going to take every pitch.
Downing's first pitch to him in the fourth inning was a ball, a changeup that puffed up the dirt in front of the plate. Umpire Dave Davidson turned the ball over, looking at it suspiciously, and tossed it out. He signaled to umpire Pulli at first base to throw in another of the prepared balls. Downing rubbed it up a bit, then turned and, as the clock on the scoreboard behind him showed 9:07, wheeled and delivered a fastball, aiming low and expecting it to fade away off the outside corner.
The ball rose off Aaron's bat in the normal trajectory of his long hits—the arc of a four-iron shot in golf—ripping out over the infield, the shortstop instinctively bending his knees as if he could leap for it, and it headed for deep left centerfield....
Aaron never saw it clear the fence. Hard as it is to imagine, Aaron says he has never seen one of his home runs land. "That's not what I'm supposed to do," he says. "I've seen guys miss first base looking to see where the ball went. My job is to get down to first base and touch it. Looking at the ball going over the fence isn't going to help. I don't even look at the home runs hit in batting practice. No sense to break a good habit."
So, as he has done countless times, he looked toward first as he ran, dropping his bat neatly just off the base path, and when he saw the exultation of his first base coach, Jim Busby, he knew for sure that the long chase was over.
Al Downing did watch the ball go over the fence. He had seen the leftfielder and the centerfielder converge, and he was hoping the wind would hold the ball up. When the ceremonies began just off home plate, he went to sit in the Dodger dugout and looked on.
The delay was of no help to his control, and he was taken out that same inning. He went to the empty Dodger locker room and dressed. A taxi was ordered for him, and he stood in the stadium tunnel waiting for it. Downing has a very cheery voice that seems to belie the gravity of any situation one might connect him with. "Well, that's that," he said. "I didn't have the rhythm, and the fastball wasn't doing what it was supposed to, which is to drop slightly. I threw a changeup, low, and then I threw a fastball right down the middle. What did I think when he hit it? Damn, there goes our lead. So I went and sat in the dugout. Nobody said anything about the home run. Why should they? We're all grown men. We don't have to console each other. One or two people came by and said, 'We'll get the runs back for you.' "
A photographer appeared with a small souvenir placard handed out by the Braves, testifying that the bearer had been on hand to see the record home run hit. It had a picture of Aaron and the number 715. The photographer wanted Downing to pose with it, hold it up and smile. Downing shook his head quickly. "I don't think that would prove anything," he said. He looked up and down the tunnel for his taxi.
"I'm more concerned about my next start," he went on. "This thing is over. It's history. It won't bother me. There's only one home run hit off me that's ever stayed in my mind. That was a grand slam that Ken Boyer got in the sixth inning of the 1964 World Series—the one that beat the Yankees 4-3 and turned the whole Series around. I threw him a changeup, and there was a lot of second-guessing that I had thrown him the wrong pitch, that I should have challenged him. I thought about that for a long time. I was 23 at the time. It was a technical consideration. This one? It's more emotional. Well, pitchers don't ever like to give up home runs. But I'm not giving myself up to trauma. People will be calling to see if I've jumped out the window yet. I'm not going to wake up in the middle of the night and begin banging on the walls and looking over the sill down into the street. The next time I pitch against him I'll get him out." A distant roar went up from the crowd. The Braves were having a good inning.
"Your team has made six errors," Downing was told.
"That so? They must be pressing," he said. "Everybody's edgy tonight." He craned his neck, looking for his taxi.
At the sound of the ball hitting the bat, in the broadcast booth the chief voice of the Atlanta Braves rose against the tumult to describe the event over the air to his part of the outside world. The voice belonged to Atlanta's local broadcaster, Milo Hamilton, an announcer for the Cubs and the White Sox before coming to the Braves. It was a tremendous moment for him. True, an NBC crew (Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola) was on hand and so was Vin Scully, the Dodger announcer for the past 25 years, sending the game back to Los Angeles. Through their combined broadcast outlets, many millions would be made aware of the instant, but none had a more personal involvement than Milo Hamilton. Being with the Braves, he was the only broadcaster in the country who had known for months that at some point he would be describing Aaron's historic home run. His situation was extraordinary. While he had to verbalize instantly into a microphone what he saw, in the case of Aaron's home run, because it was inevitable, Hamilton had an opportunity to prepare a sentence so perfect that if it worked, if enough people heard it and commented on it, it had an excellent chance to slip into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations alongside "One small step...."
Almost invariably, a momentous comment in sports reporting is made spontaneously, under pressure and against the crowd noise, so that a common characteristic is often that the key sentences are repeated. There was a flurry of repetitions when Russ Hodges, ordinarily a somewhat phlegmatic sportscaster, gave his on-the-spot report of Bobby Thomson's "miracle of Coogan's Bluff" home run in the Dodger-Giant playoff game in 1951: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant.... I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it!"
Describing the extraordinary home run of Ted Williams in his last at bat in the majors, Curt Gowdy had a brace of repeated sentences—"It's got a chance! It's got a chance! And it's gone!"—all said in a somewhat restrained fashion, since in an earlier inning Williams had hit a long fly ball that Gowdy had described as if it were going into the seats. He did not want to be fooled again.
Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee broadcaster, had a quasi-opportunity, much like Hamilton's, to prepare for Roger Maris's 61st home run, which was a strong possibility though hit on the last day of the 1961 season. Obviously, Rizzuto did not do so, since his radio commentary, utilizing his favorite epithet, was absolutely predictable. "Holy cow!" he cried. "That's gonna be it."
Sportscasters all take a dim view of preparing material in advance, feeling that spontaneity must be the key essential of their craft, the thing that so often produces the most noteworthy effect. "It's very much my cup of tea," Hamilton says. But on his speaking tours this past winter he realized that so much curiosity was being generated by what he was going to say at the climactic moment that he felt bound to work something up. In the evenings he would sit around and let his imagination take over: As he watched the Aaron home run arch into the scats his lips murmured; the sentences formed; the facts crowded his mind, especially the similarities between Aaron and Babe Ruth—that the two of them were born just a day apart in February, that both hit the 714th home run at the same age (40), both as members of the Braves' organization. Hamilton decided to announce much of this material as Aaron circled the bases after hitting 715, using each base as a marker along the way ("...he steps on second...and the Babe's great record, nearly two-score years old...and he steps on third...a great day for Aquarians! Both Henry and the Babe...").
As for the phrases at the moment of impact, Hamilton decided on "Henry has tied the Babe!" for home run 714, and for 715, the tiebreaker, he chose, after much thought, "Baseball has a new home run king! It's Henry Aaron!"—not earth-shaking (nor in the case of the latter especially grammatical), but functional. Hamilton realized that anything more ornate would sound hollow and forced.
When the great moment came, however, spontaneity took over despite Hamilton's best intentions. The planned sequence of comparing Ruth and Aaron was wiped out of mind because of the speed with which Aaron circled the bases (not being one to slow down and glory in the occasion), the tremendous crowd noise and a violent eruption of fireworks exploding above the centerfield rim of the stadium. Even the word king, which Hamilton had intended to say, came out champion. "It's gone!" he cried. "It's 715! There'a new home run champion of all time! And it's Henry Aaron!" But mainly, Hamilton was startled during his commentary by something he had never seen before in his nine years of describing the Braves in action: As Aaron turned third base, his solemn face suddenly broke into a bright grin, as surprising to see, considering his usual mien, as if he had started doing an Irish jig coming down the base path toward the plate. Hamilton was struck by it, but he never had time to describe it to his audience; by the time he recovered, Aaron was running into the pack of players and dignitaries, with more streaming from both benches and the grandstand, and Hamilton had these things to describe to his listeners. But Aaron beaming was the one sight, he said later, that he would particularly remember of that day....
Aaron himself does not remember smiling, or very much else about that run around the bases. The tension, the long haul, the discomfiture of the constant yammering, the hate mail—perhaps all of that was symbolized by 715, and to hit it produced a welcome mental block. Aaron has always said that the most important home run in his life was 109, an undistinguished number, but it was a home run hit in the 11th inning of a 2-2 tie game that defeated the St. Louis Cardinals and gave the Braves the 1957 pennant. Aaron has a very clear memory of his reaction as he circled the base paths in that enormous tumult of rejoicing. He suddenly remembered Bobby Thomson's Miracle Home Run and how he had heard about it over somebody's radio as he was coming home from school in Mobile, Ala., and how he had begun running as if coming down from third toward his teammates waiting at an imaginary plate.
"That had always been my idea of the most important homer," Aaron said after hitting his pennant-winner. "Now I've got one for myself. For the first time in my life, I'm excited."
A home run of that sort, meaning one that produced a playoff or championship victory, is obviously Aaron's idea of an "important" home run. But about 715 he remembers only his relief that it was over with and a vague happiness; that his legs seemed rubbery as he took the tour of the bases, the Dodger second baseman and shortstop sticking out their hands to congratulate him. "I don't remember the noise," he said, trying to recall, "or the two kids that I'm told ran the bases with me. My teammates at home plate. I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there, and she hugging me. That's what I'll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don't know where she came from, but she was there...."
There was hardly a fan who turned up in the leftfield seats for the Atlanta opener who did not firmly believe that he was going to catch the Aaron home run. Many of them brought baseball gloves. A young Atlantan from the highway department had established himself in the front row, wielding a 15-foot-long bamboo pole with a fishnet attached. He was proficient with it, sweeping it back and forth over the Braves' bullpen, though the only ball he had come close to catching with his gear had been a batting-practice home run hit into the bullpen enclosure the year before by a catcher named Freddie Velazquez. The fan missed sweeping it in by a couple of feet.
The leftfield stands of Atlanta Stadium contain the cheapest seats in the ballpark and perhaps its most knowledgeable and intractable fans. They have a close affinity with Aaron. He stands immediately in front of them when the Braves are in the field, and they look down at the big blue 44 on the back of his uniform and watch the way he rests his oversized glove ("These days I need all the glove I can get," he has said) on his hip between pitches. They rise and cheer him when he walks out to his position, and as they do, he lifts his throwing hand in an awkward, shy gesture to acknowledge them.
The Braves' outfield is bordered by a six-foot-high wire-mesh fence that runs around the perimeter of the grass. In the space between it and the high wall of the stands are the two bullpens. The visitors' bullpen is in the rightfield corner. The Braves' mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, sits in his tepee on the leftfield foul line, adjacent to the Atlanta bullpen, and when a Brave batter hits a home run he steps out in his regalia and does a war dance. The Braves' bullpen being immediately under the leftfield wall, the fans with front-row seats can look down and see the catchers resting their right knees on towels to keep their pants legs from getting dusty as they warm up the relief pitchers.
The Atlanta pitching staff was the weakest in the National League last year (one reason why the Braves, despite a Murderer's Row of Aaron, Darrell Evans, Dusty Baker, Mike Lum and Dave Johnson, who last year broke Rogers Hornsby's home run record for second basemen, were not pennant contenders), and the leftfield fans have the same sort of despairing affection for the relievers that Met fans had for their team in its early, bleak days.
"We know the pitchers out here," one Atlanta fan said. "In the expensive part of the stadium they never see them long enough to get acquainted. They go in and they're bombed and they're on their way to the showers, which are kept going full and heavy. They never turn off the showers once the starting pitcher is knocked out."
The main reason for sitting in the leftfield corner, of course, is that the majority of Aaron's home runs are pulled toward there, to land either in the stands or in the enclosure where a denizen of the bullpen or Chief Noc-A-Homa can retrieve them. Noc-A-Homa has seen every home run Aaron has hit in Atlanta Stadium since 1969, with the exception of No. 698, which he missed because he was trying to find a chair for one of the bullpen pitchers. He has not retrieved an Aaron home run since 1972, being too busy doing his celebratory foot-stomping dance. But, brisk of foot himself and outfitted with a lacrosse stick for additional reach, he had seen himself as a possible retriever should 715 drop in the enclosure. When Aaron really tags one, the homer flies over the enclosure and drops in the general-admission areas, where a pyramid of struggling people immediately forms over the ball.
The abrasions and thumps suffered in the pileup over 715 would be worth it. A high of $25,000 (by both Sammy Davis Jr. and an anonymous Venezuelan fan) had been offered for the ball. The retriever would be photographed giving it back to Aaron, and his face would shine out of the country's sports pages, and even if on the periphery, he would know something of the excitement of being touched by the moment.
Eventually the prize would go to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., to join other great talismans of baseball history under their domes of glass—among them, Roger Maris's 61st homer and Babe Ruth's 714th and last home run, each with the name of the retriever included.
There are several astonishing things about Ruth's last home run, the first being that it was even recovered at all. It was the third he hit that day (May 25, 1935), and it was the first hit out of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field since its construction in 1909, an accomplishment not repeated until 1950, when Ted Beard, a Pirate outfielder, was the first of a select group (including Willie Stargell, who has done it a number of times) to join Ruth.
The Pirate pitcher on the mound that day against Ruth and the Boston Braves was Guy Bush, who had come in to relieve the starter, Red Lucas, off whom the Babe had hit the first of his trio. Bush, who now lives on a farm in Mississippi, remembers that the "book" on Ruth (he refers to the Bambino as the Big Bamboo) was to throw him a slow curve. "Well, sir, I threw the slow curve, and he hit this little Chinese home run down the rightfield line—which was no distance at all—20 feet back into the stands for his second of the day," says Bush. "That made me so mad that when he came up again at the back end of the game I called Tommy Padden, my catcher, out to the mound, and I said, 'Tommy, I don't think the Big Bamboo can hit my fastball.' I didn't think so, sir. He had a stance at the plate where he near had his back to the pitcher; he was so far turned around that I could see the number 3 on his uniform; I didn't think the monkey could come around quick enough on my fastball to get his bat on it. So I told Tommy that I was going to challenge him with the fastball. In fact, I told Tommy to go back and tell the Big Bamboo what I was going to do—that I was going to damn him to hit my fastball. That's how confident I was. Now Tommy Padden has passed away, poor soul, and I can't tell you for sure whether he told the Bamboo what I was going to do. But I can tell you this, sir, that I threw two fastballs, and he hit the second one for the longest ball I ever saw—it cleared those whole three decks—and I was too surprised to be mad anymore."
The ball Ruth hit sailed over the heads of a group of boys who happened to be standing at the corner of Bouquet and Joncire and bounced into a construction lot, where it was retrieved by a youngster named Henry (Wiggy) Diorio. He took it around to the Schenley Hotel, where the Braves were staying, for Ruth's autograph. At that time no one, much less the Babe (who decided to retire a few games later), knew that the ball would be the last he would ever hit out of a ballpark. He autographed the ball for young Wiggy and said that as far as he was concerned it was just another home run.
As for Roger Maris's home run, that was caught by a young truck driver named Sal Durante. He saw the ball begin its rise, and he hopped up on his seat (No. 4 in box 163D in section 33 at Yankee Stadium) and made a one-handed grab. He shouted, "I got it! I got it!" and was immediately engulfed by a tide of fans trying to wrest the ball away. The ball was worth $5,000 to him—a pleasant windfall for Durante (who was going to present the ball to Maris anyway)—and made his stadium seat, according to The New York Times the next day, the most "profitable in baseball history."
In Atlanta most of the home runs do not reach the stands but fall in the enclosure. There, the Braves themselves had decided that if any member of the bullpen caught the ball, it should be delivered immediately to Aaron. Coach Ken Silvestri was asked to supervise the procedure. When Aaron came up he spotted his bullpen crew along the wall, about five yards apart. In the fourth inning Silvestri stationed himself close to the leftfield line in the hope that Aaron would pull the ball sharply. He looked around for the big flexible mitt he used to catch knuckleballs and discovered that Gary Gentry, a pitcher what's more, had swiped it, leaving Silvestri with a regular catcher's glove, which is not the best piece of equipment with which to catch a long drive. Silvestri was just about to call across and cuss out Gentry when Downing began his windup and threw....
The last man in the line toward centerfield was lefthander Tommy House, one of the Brave staff's short relievers, called Puma by his teammates for the way he bounces around during the pepper games and thumps down catlike on the ball.
"The whole thing blew my mind," House said. "The ball came right at me, just rising off the bat on a line. If I'd frozen still like a dummy, the ball would have hit me right in the middle of the forehead. Drop the ball? No way. It never occurred to me; it wouldn't to anyone who's been catching fly balls since he was a kid. The only vague problem was someone directly above me who had a fishnet on a pole; he couldn't get it operating in time.
"I've been getting a lot of kidding, particularly from the other people out in the bullpen, because I've got my master's degree in marketing and I don't suppose my professors would give me high marks for opportunism, with so much being offered for the ball. But I'm not at all sorry. What made it worthwhile was what I saw when I ran in with the ball, holding it in my gloved hand, running really fast—in fact my teammates joked afterward that it was the fastest I'd run in a couple of years—really just wanting to get rid of it, to put it in Henry's hand. In that great crowd around home plate I found him looking over his mother's shoulder, hugging her to him, and suddenly I saw what many people have never been able to see in him—deep emotion. I'd never seen that before. He has such cool. He never gets excited. He's so stable. And I looked, and he had tears hanging on his lids. I could hardly believe it.
" 'Hammer, here it is,' I said. I put the ball in his hand. He said, 'Thanks, kid,' and touched me on the shoulder. I kept staring at him. And it was then that it was brought home to me what this home run meant, not only to him, but to all of us...."
Aaron's most significant home runs have been marked where they came down—No. 500 by a white square on the Fan-A-Gram electric announcement board, No. 600 by the appropriate numerals painted in white high on the wall down the leftfield foul line and No. 700 by a seat painted red among its baby-blue fellows in the leftfield stands. The Braves' management has not decided what to do about commemorating the spot where No. 715 came down. A plaque had been thought of for placement in the wall or in the stands, but no one was prepared for House's catch. Some clubhouse wags have suggested that a replica of the pitcher, life-size, should be set out there, if not the original article, stuffed, with a gloved arm outstretched.
A more eloquent testi monial than anything the Braves' management can probably think up is already in place just across the expressway from the stadium—a life-size concrete statue of Aaron set up in the cluttered front yard of a 70-year-old black gravestone cutter named E.M. Bailey. Bailey works only in concrete (marble is far too expensive for his customers), and each of his headstones, with the name and date chiseled on it, sells for $10. In his off time Bailey works on pieces of sculpture—massive-winged birds with thin, curved necks, a pair of girls bent like mangrove roots in a wild dance, a memorial to President John F. Kennedy with Air Force One flying above the White House. Every one of these constructions was made with Portland cement.
Bailey began working on the Aaron sculpture last spring and had it finished and brightly painted (Aaron's uniform in appropriate blue, white and red) just in time to move it, with the assistance of three helpers, into his small front yard on the night of the opener. The statue weighs more than 2,000 pounds. It shows Aaron at the completion of the swing of a massive bat, his eyes, somewhat slanted in Oriental style, watching the ball sail off on its flight. When the statue was in place, children came down the street, leaning up against a chicken-wire fence to look up briefly at the statue on their way home to watch the game on TV.
Bailey, somewhat exhausted by his afternoon's labors with the statue, relaxed in his spring back chair for the game. His wife sat across the room. When Aaron hit No. 715 the two could hear the shouts rising along the street from the neighbor's houses. "Just then," Bailey says, "I kind of thought back, and when I realized how far he had come and what the hardships were and what it means when one of us makes good, well, I shed a little tear over that, setting there in my chair. My wife never knew. Oh my, no! I never let on. She never saw."
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.
"If you make one small mistake," says Downing, "there's no one in the league who can take advantage of it like Aaron does"
"I remember my mother out there, and she hugging me," said Aaron. "That's what I'll remember more than anything."