Tonight, the Braves honor Henry Aaron for a 40-year-old event that made us baseball fans all over again. But what if that night had been… tonight? 1974 was still different from 2014 in a lot of ways. And that might have changed everything.
1974 was a different era in the South. Growing up in Florida, this writer was not unaware of many of the cultural and racial issues of the time. I remember being kept home from school one day as part of a school busing boycott when the Orange County (FL) school board tried to shuffle kids all over town as part of a desegregation plan. Certainly the 40-year-old Henry Aaron knew about racial tensions all too well, despite the fact that his only crime was that he played baseball… better than anyone in his era ever had.
In 1974, Aaron was besieged by death threats… and ultimately well-wishers, too, but the threats had to be on his mind. The Braves ended up hiring a secretary to help him with the flood of mail. The good news? The Atlanta fans seemed to be 100% behind him on that historic night 40 years ago.
In 2014, there would be a different kind of pressure: the media chaos.
In 1974, the Internet didn’t exist. Cable TV was just starting to break out. CNN was six years away. ESPN was four years away. In 2014, credentialed media would have numbered in the thousands with satellite trucks camped around the stadium. Emails and tweets would likely number in the tens of thousands… daily.
Every day would bring dozens of new requests for interviews. Aaron’s teammates would hardly be immune, either: if unable to meet with Aaron directly, media resources would then be focused on every other player and coach to ask what he thought of Aaron. Every at bat would feature a network cut-in to watch every pitch. For upcoming games, every few minutes, every ESPN channel and the MLB Network would advise its listeners about when to expect the next Aaron update. Every angle would be covered, every pitch scrutinized. Armchair analysts – yes, even us – would come out of the woodwork.
We see it every time a hit streak reaches half way to Joe Dimaggio’s milestone. We see it when no-hitters are in progress. We see it when hitters reach even 600 home runs. Derek Jeter‘s 3000th hit was another example.
Even among fans, there would be a frenzy: ticket scalping on ebay – for a home opener to boot – would have been building throughout the entire Spring. I can easily imagine $1000+ markups. Fake ticket scams would be rampant. Offers for “the ball” would run into the half-million-plus range.
As for Aaron himself, in our day, the racism is substantially subdued – and good riddance – but it hardly means that there’s no pressure to perform, either. One could argue (to a degree) that Alex Rodriguez fell victim to that pressure. Many simply assumed that he would zoom past Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds and get to 800 homers. At this point, we’re pretty well assured that this won’t happen – and we’ve got a fair idea of why. He’s now at 654 – 5th place all time.
That said, there’s a huge difference between having a microphone and camera aimed at you vs. having a gun aimed at you.
Along with the media would be a different kind of scrutiny – the kind that you cannot dismiss or disprove. It would be present because of an era in baseball that we’d all like to forget: the steroid era.
I won’t belabor this point as A-Rod has already been mentioned. However, it is appropriate to mention that Aaron himself admitted to briefly using some amphetamines in an attempt to extract himself from an extended slump (didn’t know he ever had a slump! :). Though the players have taken the lead in the cleansing of this game, we know that there’s still a spectre of doubt that hovers over any player that seems to have other worldly performance on the field. Even Albert Pujols didn’t escape the scrutiny after Jack Clark made an accusation (now retracted). But Pujols isn’t in Aaron’s league… yet (492 homers).
The Home Run Trot
It is still unfathomable to me that two teenagers managed to get onto the field that night and run with Aaron – joining him as he rounded second base. This happened despite the extra security at the stadium, given the threats against Aaron. Some reports name one of the runners as TBS reporter Craig Sager. That is not accurate, though in videos of the event, you can spot Sager in the scrum around home plate after the fact (1:17-19 of the video) and in this photo.
No, their names are Britt Gaston (R) and Cliff Courteny (L), then aged 18 and 17. Each was charged with disorderly conduct. Gaston’s father is said to have bailed both out of jail – for $200. The Braves arranged a reunion for the trio in August 2010 (Gaston passed away from cancer 13 months later) in which they talked about the event and their experiences between themselves and with the media. From the sound of it, this could not have gone better.
During the last Braves’ game I attended, I was in a 2nd row seat, directly next to the right field foul line ball boy. But what I noticed the most was the security guy also present there. He looked like he could be a defensive back in the NFL. He also impressed me for his vigilance – scanning the crowd and obviously being very serious about his watchman’s role. And that was before I got to see during that game exactly what he could do.
Somewhere around the sixth inning, a drunk fan – as his friend proudly proclaimed from the stands afterward – came down the steps right next to me and then bolted for the field. Drunk as he was, he could really run – and actually made it into left-center field before ‘my’ guard and 3-4 of his fellow defensive backs took him down without mercy. I would not want to mess with those guys.
Today we have stadiums with metal detectors, cameras everywhere, very capable security personnel for every game – never mind for playoffs and special events as this would have certainly qualified for. We have alcohol limitation rules. We have severe penalties for the disruption of sporting events – that “disorderly conduct” charge was actually very kind, even at the time.
Could somebody have gotten to Aaron like that in 2014? Maybe. But it certainly would not have gone nearly as well as it did in 1974. Security paranoia alone – for well-founded reasons – would see to that.
The game is different now. Many more strikeouts (Aaron never exceeded 100 in any of his 23 seasons in the majors). The money is even different. Pitchers seem to throw harder and with more movement on their pitches. Relievers are specialized for handling righties, lefties, closing. A batter might see 3-4 different pitchers in a game. In Aaron’s era, he might have seen two.
It is because of this that many say Dimaggio’s hit streak will stand forever: just too many variations in the opposition. You might be able to say that for home run hitters as well. Excepting Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and A-Rod for reasons all too clear, no one other than Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome have exceeded 600 home runs since Aaron did it. Then again, even while he was playing, only Willie Mays got to that milestone. So is it easier or harder now?
But Henry Aaron was an extraordinary ball player. In any era. He was the best of his time then. I have to believe he’d also be the best of this time. And that’s why we’re honoring him tonight.