Remembering Hank Aaron and His Moment

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On April 8, 1974, a man stepped to the plate in the 4th inning, took a low ball, then drove a ball over the left field wall that became possibly the most important home run hit in major league baseball.  On Tuesday, the Braves will honor Hank Aaron on the 40th anniversary of that incredibly historic moment.

 

The other players involved:

Hank wasn’t alone in his moment.  Al Downing was the Dodgers pitcher who gave up the historic home run.  More on him in a bit.

Bill Buckner nearly went over the wall attempting to field the home run.  Buckner would, 12 1/2 years later, have a moment that put him into baseball lore as well as a ball trickled between his legs to allow the winning run to score in game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  I would imagine Buckner would recall this moment with much more fondness.  Buckner had a tremendous season in 1974, and is one of the more underrated hitters of that era, most likely because he never really hit a lot of home runs or stole bases.  He just made contact.  In fact, Buckner came to the plate over 10,000 times, and his walks AND strikeouts combined made up only 900 of those plate appearances.  He always put the ball in play, and in 1974, he hit .314/.351/.412 with 31 steals and 30 doubles.  He ended up receiving votes for MVP that season, but most will remember him lunging over the left field wall after 715.

 

Hank and Al shared a moment earlier this year recalling the play:

 

Hank is his typical humble self in that clip, admiring Downing for winning 21 games with both the Yankees and Dodgers, yet Downing won 20 once with the Dodgers and never achieved more than 14 victories in any other season of his career.  Hank also downplays his own success off of Downing, a pitcher he hit .296/.355/.667 off of in 31 plate appearances.  Downing was famous for his screwball-sinker combination, but his lack of a strikeout pitch kept him at the back of the rotation for most of his career.  1974, however, was the last season Downing would start the majority of his appearances, finishing his career with three seasons as a long reliever from 1975-1977.

 

What made that moment great?

I’ve written about this in the past, and I’ll gladly do so again.  I’m a Braves fan because of Hank Aaron.  My great-grandma wanted another baseball nut in the family, and she poured her love of the game into me.  While she would have preferred I cheered for her beloved Chicago Cubs, instead I chose the team of the player she most admired in the game.  By the time I was around, Hank was long gone from actively playing, but she absolutely adored the man for the way he handled all of the bigotry, pressure, media, and “mess” thrown at him as he pursued the most hallowed record in sports at that time.  After all, Maris had taken away Babe Ruth‘s single season record by that time, so the big home run record the Babe still had was the career mark, before Willie Mays and Hank came around considered to be untouchable.

Willie flamed out in his pursuit of the Babe and ended his career at 660 home runs, but Hank would not only catch Ruth, but clear him by another 40 home runs before he was finished.  To do this less than a decade after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and to do it in Atlanta, considered the hot bed for racial tension toward African-Americans at the time…well, that was just extraordinary.  However, to be able to keep his composure, humility, and professionalism throughout the offseason when he had finished one short of Ruth in 1973 and faced an offseason of death threats, abusive phone calls and letters, and media pundits debating aloud whether he was “worthy” of taking over the mantle as the home run king – there are not words for the amount of restraint and courage that Aaron displayed in that time.

Then the swing, the unmistakable sound on the bat, and Aaron was rounding the bases – when suddenly, two young white men joined him in his run.  Any number of things were going through the heads of those in the stands, and even the players.  One player remarked that he thought Aaron was going to be killed by the two before he was able to complete his historic home run trot.  If ever a moment sealed how sports can truly take us away from the insanity of the day-to-day world we live in, this was it.

To finish off the historic home run jog, Aaron found his mother and gave her an incredible hug.  He was doused with an intense ovation from the Atlanta fans, a well deserved moment for one of the best to have ever played the game.  Congrats, Hank, and thank you from all Braves fans then and now!

I will leave you with two memories of the moment – the first, the call that legendary announcer Vin Scully did of the home run.  If you don’t have goosebumps listening to this call, I’m not sure what to tell you!  Second, I will leave a multiple exposure photograph recently released by Time magazine, who owns the pictures from Life magazine at the time. It’s worth the time to click on the pick to make it full-size and appreciate all the intricacy.  Take some time today to remember Hank for the man and the player he was and is today!

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