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A 'rookie' and home run No. 715

A 'rookie' and home run No. 715

It is inconceivable that it has been 33 years, a protest reinforced by the images still being so vivid ...

The jet hummed its way through the dark clouds between Los Angeles and Atlanta, its blackened cabin pierced by a persistent glow which turned one particular seat incandescent.

Al Downing occupied it. He looked like he would've preferred to be alone with his thoughts. But there was no chance of that, as this was the Los Angeles Dodgers' private 747 in the days reporters freely flew with the team. And in the wee hours of April 8, 1974, Downing was en route to his date with destiny.

"I will pitch to Aaron no differently than at any other time," Downing said, for the umpteenth time since the Dodgers had left Los Angeles with a defeat and Hank Aaron had left Cincinnati still with 714 home runs. "I'll mix my pitches up, move the locations. If I make a mistake, it's no disgrace."

Downing, a classy 32-year-old left-hander from Trenton, N.J., had been a serviceable Major League pitcher for four different teams since 1961. He was dependable, never flamboyant, and a winner of more than 14 games only once. But at the dawn of his 14th season, celebrity found him.

He and Aaron, a National League icon for two decades and daily Page One headline fodder for two years, had hardly been on a collision course for a lifetime. It was more like a few hours, since Hammerin' Hank managed to flee Ohio only sharing the all-time homer record with Babe Ruth.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had done his best to deflect the spotlight from Downing, lowering the might of his office on the Braves. With his ownership's blessing, manager Eddie Mathews planned to sit Aaron out of the season-opening series against the Reds and save his thunder for Atlanta's home opener. Kuhn, guarding the integrity of the game, threatened "serious consequences" if Aaron was MIA from Riverfront Stadium.

Throughout his astonishingly consistent career, Aaron had hit a homer every 15.8 at-bats. So were all the manipulations over perhaps 10 at-bats in a Cincinnati series necessary? Apparently so; Aaron had taken relentless bead on Ruth's record, spurred on by volumes of hate mail. As quickly as possible, he wanted to end his own agony, and he wanted to figuratively lower his Hammer on all of his anonymous pen pals.

His last swing of 1973 had produced homer No. 713. His first swing of 1974 -- off the Reds' Jack Billingham -- had notched No. 714.

I packed my bags -- after that Opening Day salvo, I gave up hoping for history to remain on hold until I got to Atlanta -- to cover my very first regular-season baseball game since going from college to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, with a brief stop at a Mojave Desert small-town daily. I shared the attitude of everyone else around a locked-in nation: If Aaron couldn't do it at home, the birthplace of the National League was the next-best place.

But a compromise struck with Kuhn, who settled for two out of three in Cincinnati, enabled Aaron to miss Saturday's game. On Sunday, Aaron satisfied Kuhn by playing until the seventh-inning stretch, long enough to strike out twice and ground out to third.

Baseball's most anticipated, most momentous event ever waited for us, after all.

The weeks leading up to the 1974 season were filled with anticipation and some dread of the unknown. The number doomed to fall was anything but arbitrary, three digits that had stood symbolic sentry over the game for 39 years. We weren't sure what we'd find on the other side.

The Hammer: A Tribute to Hank Aaron

Yes, it was that big. The continuing saga of Aaron had stirred the nation as baseball was at a decade-long ebb, its quaint leisure shoved aside by the Vietnam War.

That day in Georgia dawned dark and dreary, wet and cold. The early afternoon hours passed with a pronounced sense of anticipation throughout the festive downtown Atlanta area. No Monday blues, not on this Monday.

As I ventured into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the afternoon, I was immediately struck by two thoughts: "Well, no wonder the Braves didn't want Aaron to fire all his bullets in Cincinnati." And, "My God, what if he doesn't do it tonight? What do the Braves do for an encore?"

It was a remarkable atmosphere, considering Aaron would be attempting to do what sages have always credited with being the most difficult feat in sports. The scale of the festivities made no allowance for "maybe."

Aaron spent some treasured private moments in the Braves' clubhouse. "He didn't seem very excited, even before the game," said Dusty Baker, his young teammate and, along with Ralph Garr, confidante. "He stayed by his locker, minding his business." Until it was showtime.

Against the release of hundreds of balloons, Aaron was escorted through a phalanx of majorettes into center field, where the grass was covered by a stars-and-stripes rendering of the U.S. map. There, he had to watch his life flash before his eyes, as he was saluted by friends, relatives, admirers -- Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Mayor Maynard Jackson, Governor Jimmy Carter, high school bands and college choirs.

All this, before the game.

Back in the dugout, poised on the top step ready to take the field for the top of the first, Aaron turned to Baker. "I'm gonna hurry up and get this over with," he said.

The sellout crowd of 53,755 was down with that. Its buzz quickly turned to hisses as Downing, betraying his wow to not dodge Aaron, never gave him a chance to lift the bat from his shoulders while walking him in the second inning (after which Aaron came around to score his 2,063rd career run to break Willie Mays' NL record, a completely overlooked feat).

In the fourth, with the Braves down 3-1, Darrell Evans reached base on an error by shortstop Bill Russell. Leaving for his second at-bat, Aaron called out over his shoulder to Baker, replacing him in the on-deck circle, "I'm gonna get it over with right now."

He looked at an outside pitch for ball one.

"OK, I have to go and hit [catcher Joe] Ferguson's right knee with this next pitch," Downing thought to himself. "That's a pitch he'll have to swing at; it'll be close enough to the strike zone." He wound up, threw the ball and immediately thought, "That ball's getting too much of the plate."

On his first swing of the game, Aaron lifted a drive to left-center.

I'm not sure how one would define perfect karma, but for me to be in Atlanta on this night had to come pretty close. My first son had been born earlier that year, on Feb. 5 -- Aaron's birthdate. Ruth had died in 1948 -- the year I was born. And Hammerin' Hank took that cut at the approximate time my wife and I had exchanged wedding vows on the West Coast on April 8, 1973 -- exactly one year earlier.

In the bullpen beyond the wall, Braves relievers were lined up about 10 yards apart, by seniority, those with the highest rank occupying the sweetest spots.

In New York City, Claire Ruth plopped wearily on the sofa in her Riverside Drive flat, spent from a long day of shopping.

Left fielder Bill Buckner raced back toward the fence, eyes peeled on the drive, and center fielder Jimmy Wynn peeled away from him.

"When he hit it," Downing said, "I didn't think it was out because I was watching Wynn and Buckner. But the ball just kept carrying and carrying."

Milo Hamilton made the the radio call: "Here's the pitch by Downing ... swinging ... there's a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be ... outta here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home run champion of all time! And it's Henry Aaron!"

Buckner started to scale the fence, then relented to reason. He was vastly outnumbered. Besides, Tom House, a three-year veteran who thus did not have one of the choice spots, already had the prized ball in his glove and had begun to race with it toward the plate, like Phidippides bringing news of victory at Marathon.

On Riverside Drive, the phone of Ruth's daughter began jingling off the hook. "The Babe loved baseball so very much," Claire Ruth told a reporter caller. "I know he was pulling for Hank Aaron to break his record."

Amid exploding flashbulbs and fireworks, Aaron continued his tour around the bases, hardly alone.

"What I most remember," said Tommy Lasorda, then the Dodgers' third-base coach, "is our guys shaking his hand as he went around the bases. I'd never seen anything like that before."

Midway between second and third, Aaron had more company, two excited college students dashing up to pat his back and trot with him into the everlasting video vault.

It was 9:07 p.m. ET when Aaron neared the throng awaiting him at the plate.

"When I got there, who's standing there but my mother," Aaron has reflected. "And she put a bath kiss on me I never felt before." Gaile Aaron, Hank's oldest daughter, later recalled, "She was holding onto him like that as if to say, 'If they're gonna kill him, we're gonna go down together.'"

"When I got to Henry," House said, "he was hugging his mother. There was a tear coming down his cheek. That's when the scope of the moment really hit me. It was just incredible emotion."

"What impressed me," Baker said, "is how calm and focused and determined and driven he was, especially with all the death threats. People don't believe the scope of it, but I was there. I remember one night, Hank said, 'There's a guy here in a red coat who's gonna shoot me. You better not sit next to me.'

"Me and Ralph sat with him anyway. Hank didn't look around at all. I was the one looking around, and if I saw anybody in a red coat, I was ducking. The guy of course never showed up, but that whole game we were scared."

House handed the ball to Aaron, who said, "Thanks, kid." Then he was picked up by his teammates and delivered to a spot already miked in front of the Atlanta dugout.

Aaron said, "I just thank God it's all over."

With his popularity and universal demand for autographs mushrooming to levels he couldn't possibly personally satisfy, the ever-accommodating Aaron had taught a couple of the Braves' clubbies a perfect replica of his signature. For weeks, most balls with Aaron's autograph were such fakes.

Early the afternoon after No. 715, Lasorda was pitching early batting practice when Aaron jogged across the field. "Hey, Henry, can you please sign some balls for me?!" Lasorda called out between pitches. Aaron nodded and disappeared into his dugout.

A bit later, a ballboy emerged from the dugout carrying a box of baseballs, looking for Lasorda, who by then had returned to the Dodgers clubhouse. "I'll get these to him," I said, and I did -- minus one ball, signed "To Tom -- Your friend, Hank Aaron," I still know is genuine.

It really was over, this phenomenon that had been building all winter. Above the music and the speeches, Baker -- still standing in the on-deck circle -- heard a steady clamor he couldn't immediately identify. Then it came to him: "It was the clanging of all the seats being folded up at the same time. Everybody was leaving."

They had gotten what they had come to see. When the game resumed 11 minutes later, Fulton County was a ghost stadium. "I finally got up and hit a double," Baker said with a smile. "There was nobody left to go nuts."

The Braves scored two tiebreaking runs later that fourth inning and went on to a 7-4 victory. Aaron, ever the consummate lunch-pail pro, stayed in the game, of course, grounding out his other two times up.

Afterwards, in the wee hours after a long, frigid night, he told a packed press conference, "Right now, it feels like just another home run. I felt all along, if I got a strike, I could hit it out. I just wanted to touch all the bases. I feel like I can relax now."

I listened and took notes by a door in the rear of the hall, in perfect position to see several Dodgers slink in to eavesdrop. Downing was one of them. "I don't think the pitcher should take the glory for No. 715," he said. "I'm not going to go around saying it was not a good experience. I've always accepted the challenge of walking out on that mound and pitching against the very best. Some days you win, some days you lose."

We all cleared out of that press conference rather quickly, beckoned by deadlines.

My wife not being much of a baseball fan, I had a hard time explaining the magnitude of a moment that had prevented me from at least calling her with "Happy Anniversary" wishes. She gradually understood, and has since understood. Aaron, my wife and I have been mutually celebrating anniversaries ever since.

The perfect postscript: I hadn't thought much about this until the recent attention paid to scholars having pinpointed the landing site of Aaron's 755th and final home run out of Milwaukee's old County Stadium. I was there for that one, too, taking an infrequent trip with the Angels. That really was a so-what blow, its significance growing only in hindsight. But it's reassuring to realize that karma held up to the very end of Hammerin' Hank's trail.

As for Downing? "When someone asks me the time, I never say '7:15' anymore. I now say, 'quarter after seven.'"

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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