The magnificent Hank Aaron, and the night I covered history

I realize there aren’t a lot of us who are still typing who were in Atlanta Stadium on April 8, 1974, the night Hank Aaron hit his historic 715th home run. Covering that game remains a highlight of my career.

First of all, I remember the traffic. The worst I ever encountered going to a Braves’ game. If the Atlanta Police Department had a traffic plan, it was designed by the same person who writes instructions to put together bicycles on Christmas Eve.

Once inside the park, I remember it was chilly. It felt more like, as I wrote the next day, the kind of weather Atlanta fans are accustomed to booing the Falcons in.

Each time Aaron came to the plate, there was this great feeling of expectation among the 53,000-plus in the stands. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a lot of sporting events, and this was like the bugler’s call before the start of a Kentucky Derby, the teams lining up for the opening tip in the Final Four, to have Michael Phelps step onto the starting blocks in the Olympics. 

I can’t imagine the burden Hank must have felt, to try to deliver that home run, to lift the weight off his shoulders, to cope with the sort of hatred and racism that had besieged him, something that was not reported or discussed at the time.

It’s the hardest thing to do in sport, to hit a pitched baseball, and to do so with all that weight, it’s astonishing what he did. 

I remember the symmetry, that he was facing Al Downing, who also wore No. 44. 

I remember the ball leaving his bat. You’ll remember, Hank’s home runs were not the majestic, steroid-fueled, ESPN-highlight homers this generation has seen. They were almost economical.

This one, I wasn’t sure it’d leave the park. Then, again to quote from my story the day after, it seemed the crowd lifted the ball far enough to clear the fence. 

Then, mayhem. Tom House grabbed the ball. Aaron continued that familiar jog around the bases. Some yahoos broke from the stands to join him. Home plate was a mob scene, with family, teammates and even an enterprising radio guy in a trench coat named Craig Sager, trying to jumpstart his career. 

A special interview room was set up after the game and Aaron revealed that the home run was more relief than celebration, cracking the window open a bit to what he had endured. 

Life went on. The Braves played the next day, and only 10,000 showed up. Don Sutton, who passed away earlier this week, was the Dodgers’ winning pitcher.

My special memories of Hank Aaron are a little more personal. I took my dad with me the night Hank played his last game as an Atlanta Brave, and Aaron hit a homer that night. My dad, darn his luck, was in line to get coffee when Aaron homered.

In 1977, he came to Engel Stadium in Chattanooga for the Southern League All-Star Game and before the game I was interviewing him in foul territory, not far from first base. I could look over Hank’s shoulder and see my grandfather, a huge baseball fan, in the stands. Seeing him with so much pride as he watched me interview Aaron still fills my heart.

A few weeks after the historic homer, a package arrived in the mail. The Braves created a special necktie to mark the occasion, with only 715 of them produced. It was gaudy maroon club tie with Aaron’s in hitting pose, the Braves’ logo and 715. They sent them to the media who had covered the game.

It was many years later when Aaron came to Chattanooga, where I was then working. He was making an appearance at a bank. I couldn’t resist. I dug out the necktie. 

“I ain’t ever seen anybody wear that,” he laughed.

“Trust me, Hank, it’s the first time I’ve worn it. And the last,” I told him.

“Ugliest tie I ever saw,” he said.

Ugly tie. Beautiful moment. And that ugly tie is mounted in a shadow box in my office, a reminder every day of a night I covered history in the making, and of the gentle, talented, courageous man who made that history.

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