Today is the 40th anniversary of Aaron's epic 715th career home run, the one that eclipsed Ruth's hallowed record of 714. It was a rainy night in Georgia, bitter cold, and Dusty Baker was right there, watching his mentor reach the mountaintop on April 8, 1974.
Baker, the Braves' 24-year-old center fielder, raised a fist from the on-deck circle as Aaron's drive arced toward left-center field. Clearing the fence, the home run sent a sellout crowd into a collective delirium normally reserved for another sport in football-mad Georgia.
Baker still clearly recalls Aaron's words as he headed toward the plate to face Dodgers veteran Al Downing in the fourth inning.
"Hank told me he was going to do it," Baker said of their brief exchange in the on-deck circle. "Hank was a student of hitting; he always studied pitchers, their tendencies. As he went up to hit, he said, 'I'm going to get this thing over with right now.'
"After he hit it, I didn't want to go to the plate. I was closer to the catcher and pitcher than anybody, but that was Hank's moment -- a great moment. He earned it."
Baker was among a select few close enough to Aaron to grasp what the great slugger had endured emotionally in the days, weeks and months leading up to April 8, 1974. Venomous mail, racist and threatening, found its way into Aaron's hands.
"I was aware of most of it," Baker said by phone from Texas, where he was enjoying his first NCAA basketball Final Four after all the years otherwise occupied as a player, coach or manager. "I lockered right next to him. I could see him stare at a letter. Sometimes he'd drop it on the floor. I'd pick it up and read what these people had written. It was terrible, man.
"The other side was people who'd send him things to let him know they were behind him. When they'd send him some hip records, he'd hand them over to me and say, 'Here, you take this.' That wasn't Hank's style."
One hate letter in particular stands out in Baker's mind all these years later.
"It was a death threat from somebody who said he'd be in the ballpark in Atlanta, in a red coat," Baker said. "Me and Ralph [Garr] said, 'We're down with you, Hank.' We were looking all night for some dude in a red coat. Hank was Hank -- cool as always. He got threats all the time."
Aaron, who turned 40 two months before breaking Ruth's record and had hit No. 714 in Cincinnati in the season-opening series, took Baker and Garr, his young partners in the Atlanta outfield, under his wing. They had dinner at the home of Rev. Jesse Jackson and also met prominent figures in the civil rights movement such as Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young.
"We went to visit Jimmy Carter and his mother when he was the governor," Baker recalled. "All these important people wanted to connect with Hank. One of his heroes was Jackie Robinson, for everything he'd gone through [in integrating baseball]. Hank wanted to carry it on in his quiet way -- and he did. He had a tremendous social impact."
When he was drafted by the Braves in 1967 as a multi-sport star out of Del Campo High School in the Sacramento, Calif., suburb of Carmichael, Baker had to convince his parents that baseball, not college, was the way to go.
"I had signed a letter of intent to Santa Clara [University]," Baker said. "Hank promised my mom he would take good care of me -- and he did. Me and Ralph went over to his house almost every night.
"After they had the ceremony on the field for him that night, I was the next hitter. I heard the clicking of seats, people leaving, when I went up to hit. It was the coldest night I can remember in Atlanta -- and one of the greatest nights of my life."
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Downing was 22, not yet known as "Gentleman Al," when he met Aaron for the first time. Downing was embarking on his rookie season as a flame-throwing lefty for the New York Yankees, having appeared in six games the previous two seasons.
"I was first introduced to him by [Yankees catcher] Elston Howard in Spring Training in 1963, in Florida," Downing recalled. "The Braves were in West Palm Beach. I remember Elston introducing us and thinking, 'This is the nicest, most gracious guy for a superstar.' Hank never really changed."
Eleven years later, Downing answered to "Ace" in the Los Angeles clubhouse. At 33, a 20-game winner in 1971, he was entering his fourth season with the Dodgers.
| "I walked him first time up, and everybody booed me. It was the second pitch [in a 1-0 count], and I was trying to get the double play. I wanted to get a fastball down in the strike zone, hoping he'd roll over. It was elevated -- and 'The Hammer' put the hammer on it."
|-- Al Downing
It was his destiny to be known in baseball lore for a fastball launched into history, one No. 44 throwing it to another. Downing was the right guy in the right place.
"It couldn't have worked out any better, really," said Davey Lopes, playing second base behind Downing that night. "Al is such a secure person, he understood the big picture. It was like when Rickey Henderson was Nolan Ryan's 5,000th strikeout victim. Rickey embraced it. Al was never bothered at all by being part of Hank's big moment."
Downing recalls every detail: three rain delays, the game situation, his characteristic nap before his start, what he was trying to do with the pitch. And he also remembers Aaron's poetic swing: so relaxed, so pure and powerful.
An error on Darrell Evans' grounder leading off the inning had Downing -- protecting a 3-1 lead he'd helped create with an RBI single -- thinking about a double play as he prepared to face Aaron.
"I walked him first time up, and everybody booed me," Downing said, Aaron scoring on Baker's double after the free pass. "It was the second pitch [in a 1-0 count], and I was trying to get the double play. I wanted to get a fastball down in the strike zone, hoping he'd roll over. It was elevated -- and 'The Hammer' put the hammer on it."
Downing had been informed that if Aaron went deep, there would be a ceremony.
"I went to the dugout," Downing said. "It rained all night. They wanted to make it official, so they were going to wait out the rain."
When play finally resumed, he walked Baker and Davey Johnson, then was replaced by Mike Marshall.
As the crowd numbering 53,775 gradually dispersed into the cold night, Downing headed to the clubhouse. Holding court with legendary author George Plimpton and a young, wide-eyed Dodgers beat writer during a rain delay, Downing was as cool and analytical as ever. He praised Aaron, talking about the respect Hank commanded, and eventually left the park in a cab with Plimpton, who had a plane to catch.
"This was a very impressive moment, a magnanimous moment for sports," Downing said. "Baseball was not big in Atlanta; football was reigning supreme. The Braves had made it to the playoffs in '69 when the Mets beat them, and that was the only time the city really got into it. This was a crowning moment for baseball in the South."
The following afternoon, Downing was sitting in the dugout with the young beat reporter when Aaron motioned him toward the batting cage. The pitcher came over, writer in tow, and the two men talked.
"He was telling me, 'I'm glad it's over,'" Downing said. "He asked me how I was doing, and I told him I was fine. He said, 'You're still a good pitcher; don't worry about it.' I have a photo of that [scene]. I'm shaking his hand behind the batting cage."
Downing and Aaron sat together at the annual Baseball Writers' Association of America Awards Dinner in January in New York. They shared some memories along with the Willie, Mickey and The Duke Award presented by the New York chapter.
"We had fun at the dinner," Downing said. "We've always had a good relationship."
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Lopes was on the money. It could not have been scripted any better.
When Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner was unsuccessful in his attempt to climb the left-field fence and claim the prized No. 715 home run ball, it was caught by Braves reliever Tom House, who raced to home plate to present it to Aaron.
As he toured the bases in his inimitable style -- and as a pair of exuberant fans were running from the stands onto the infield -- Aaron shook the hand of Lopes as he approached second base. It was the rarest of baseball scenes, especially in those times when fraternization among opposing players was heavily frowned upon.
"That was a special moment," said Lopes, who impulsively had extended his hand to Aaron. "That wasn't anything I prepared to do. It was spontaneous. I have tremendous respect for Hank, for what he accomplished and the man he is.
"Just like Jackie was the one to handle all the racial overtones of breaking the barrier, Hank was the guy to break the home run record. He's very quiet, very humble. There are a chosen few, and Hank was one of them.
"Hank and Al, their personalities are very similar. I don't think it's been a burden at all on Al. It wasn't like Bobby Thomson's home run off Ralph Branca. It was almost an honor for Al to be associated with Hank [in a historical context]. People who know themselves well see things clearly, for what they are."
That young writer, so fortunate to have been in Atlanta 40 years ago, is still knocking out copy, knowing he'll never experience anything quite like April 8, 1974, on a rainy, magical night in Georgia.