Whether they stared at television or sat on the edge of their seats in Fulton County Stadium, Atlanta Braves fans were watching every play. It wasn’t because their team was even in playoff contention. Georgians and non-Georgians were hoping to catch a glimpse of baseball history…Hank Aaron’s 715th home run.
At the start of the season, the longtime outfielder needed just two to tie the legendary Babe Ruth. Many didn’t want to miss the action. “My roommate Brett Morgan and a couple of guys went,” said Jim Weldon, an Auburn University golfer at the time. “A friend and I were working in the country club and the game was on TV, which was not a given in those days. I was standing in the bar when he hit it.”
It was a key moment for Aaron, and a memory that will never fade for Dr. Chuck Kraemer, a Psychology Professor who was at the April 8, 1974, game while a graduate student at the University of Georgia in Athens, who ordered tickets for the whole week.
“Like a lot of people, I was very disappointed when Bowie [Kuhn, the Baseball Commissioner] made out the lineup card for the Braves and Hank had to play on opening day in Cincinnati,” Dr. Kraemer recalled. “I was even more disappointed when he hit 714 on opening day. Fortunately, Bowie allowed the Braves to sit Hank down for the second game in Cincinnati guaranteeing he would break Babe’s record in Atlanta.”
But getting to the game would be tougher than usual. “We were living in Athens and the Braves were terrible in those days,” Dr. Kraemer continued. “They drew so poorly that you could usually make a last minute decision to go to a game, park at the stadium, and buy a pretty good seat on game day. That probably contributed to a sense that there was not a big hurry to get to the game from Athens.” But all the busses from Athens to Atlanta were jammed, he told me, so he had to drive himself.
“When I got to the old Atlanta Stadium, all the parking lots were full,” he noted. “I wound up having to park in town and walking about a mile and a half to get to the game. I could do that in those days. Pearl Bailey was scheduled to sing the national anthem and I was looking forward to that since I have been a big fan of hers. With the walk, I not only missed the anthem but part of the first inning.”
But Dr. Kraemer got there just in time to witnesses one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. “I had a good seat, low in the upper deck behind home plate. It was cloudy with a little rain and I remember sitting next to another fellow who couldn’t convince his wife to come to the game either. When Hank hit the tie breaker off [Al] Downing we were all hoping the rain would hold off and we would get enough innings to have an official game and the home run would count.”
What was Aaron’s impression of the grand moment? “I remember Hank’s comment that he was glad this was finally over,” Dr. Kraemer explained to me. “I didn’t hear until afterward about all the pressure he had been under and the threats, including death threats, that had been made if he dared to break a record held by a white man. I regret that but it’s a reminder of how very racist this country has been.”
But not everyone felt that way. “I saw it live on my parents’ black-and-white TV in Connecticut, and wished I was Tom House, who caught the ball,” said Arthur Robinson, a college librarian. “I was also glad I wasn’t Al Downing, a pretty good pitcher who will be forever known for giving up that home run to Aaron, even though it had happened to pitchers 714 times previously. I see it’s in the first paragraph of his Wikipedia article.”
Georgians seemed generally pleased too. “As a native Atlantan, you can’t imagine how excited I was,” said Dr. Fay Riddle, a computer science professor. “Plus Dennis [her husband] was the catcher on a Milwaukee Braves sub-team before the Braves moved to Atlanta. It was pretty exciting for him.”
Nowadays, Atlanta fans congregate in the 755 Club in Turner Field (to mark the total number of home runs Aaron hit), while cheering for black players like Jason Heyward and Justin Upton alongside whites such as Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Evan Gattis, as well as others such as Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons, without giving it a second thought. And the team will wear a commemorative 715 patch this year.
Perhaps Aaron’s great feat, overcoming threats, and giving a beleaguered fan base something to get excited about, may have played a small part on a team and in a stadium and for a city located in a certain place at a key time. Now what you do on the field can matter more than what you look like around here, and that’s perhaps more important than any baseball statistic.