Looking back on the night Hank Aaron made baseball history

Let’s celebrate Aaron 49 years after he broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record by hitting No. 715.

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The Braves’ Hank Aaron follows the flight of his record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, against the Dodgers in Atlanta.

The Braves’ Hank Aaron follows the flight of his record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, against the Dodgers in Atlanta.

Sun-Times file photo

Long before the chase of Babe Ruth became a national obsession, I was following Henry Aaron and the most magnificent wrists in baseball. Any chance I could get to see the Braves, I would head to the ballpark.

Needless to say, on the evening of April 8, 1974, I was part of the national TV audience transfixed on Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta as ‘‘Hammerin’ Hank’’ attempted to break Ruth’s record and become the all-time home-run champion. Just four days earlier, on Opening Day, Aaron had tied Ruth.

Aaron drew a walk in the second inning, and the booing cascaded around the country. Seriously, no one wanted Aaron to walk. In the fourth, the Dodgers led 3-1. The Braves’ Darrell Evans reached on an error by Bill Russell. Up stepped Aaron, who took ball one. Then he swung his bat for the first time in the game, launching the ‘‘homer heard ’round the world.’’ It headed over the fence, tying the score and breaking the home-run record.

My heart was racing as I listened to Vin Scully’s call: ‘‘What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.’’

I remember it with even greater clarity than the moon landing. So have fun and learn a lot about one of the greatest players and moments in baseball history.

1. Up to the plate came Aaron for this momentous at-bat. Who was the pitcher for the Dodgers?

a. Don Drysdale

b. Al Downing

c. Fernando Valenzuela

d. Orel Hershiser

2. The pitcher was wearing the same number as Aaron. What was Aaron’s uniform number?

a. 42

b. 43

c. 44

d. 45

3. The ball was hit over the head of the Dodgers’ left fielder, who climbed the fence to try to catch it. Who was that left fielder?

a. Tommy Davis

b. Bill Buckner

c. Jim Wynn

d. Manny Mota

4. Aaron’s uniform number was the same as that of another Hall of Famer born in Mobile, Alabama. One season, they tied for the home-run crown. Who was this other great?

a. Willie McCovey

b. Willie Mays

c. Willie Davis

d. Willie Stargell

5. How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit?

a. 762

b. 755

c. 741

d. 714

6. The player hitting behind Aaron was:

a. Orlando Cepeda

b. Eddie Mathews

c. Dusty Baker

d. Davey Johnson

7. Aaron hit 87 home runs against the Cubs. Is that the most any player has hit against them?

a. Yes

b. No

8. Among those who congratulated Aaron in a ceremony on the field after the home run was the Georgia governor. Who was that person?

a. Lester Maddox

b. George Wallace

c. Jimmy Carter

d. Herman Talmadge

9. Aaron ended up with how many career homers?

a. 765

b. 755

c. 745

d. 744

ANSWERS

1. Al Downing made his major-league debut with the Yankees a week and a half after his 20th birthday in July 1961. After playing with the Yankees, he was traded to the Athletics. The A’s traded him with Tito Francona (Terry’s dad) to the Brewers. In 1971, the Brewers traded him to the Dodgers.

2. In a delicious bit of irony, Aaron and Downing wore No. 44.

3. Remember when Bill Buckner played first base for the Cubs and (in)famously for the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series? ‘‘Billy Buck’’ was the left fielder for the Dodgers that night.

4. Did this question give you the willies? Willie McCovey also wore No. 44. If it didn’t, this should: In 1963, Aaron and McCovey tied for the NL home-run crown, each hitting 44 homers.

5. Ruth hit 714 homers. On that momentous night, Aaron hit No. 715. Downing often would joke that if anyone ever asked him the time, he would say ‘‘quarter after seven’’ rather than ‘‘7:15.’’

6. One of Aaron’s former teammates, Eddie Mathews, was now his manager. Davey Johnson, the manager of the 1986 world champion Mets, was his teammate and played second base in the game. ‘‘Cha-Cha’’ Cepeda had been his teammate for many years. The manager of the reigning world champion Astros, Dusty Baker, was the on-deck hitter.

7. This is a ‘‘no.’’ The great Willie Mays is the all-time home-run leader against the Cubs with 92.

8. Future president and then-Gov. Jimmy Carter celebrated Aaron in the on-field ceremony. After Aaron’s death, Mr. Carter said in a statement: ‘‘One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us. A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.’’

9. Aaron finished with 755 homers, 733 with the Braves and 22 with the Brewers. Some claim ‘‘BALCO’’ Barry Bonds broke the home-run record, but I just don’t buy it. V

‘‘Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron,’’ pitcher Curt Simmons once quipped, ‘‘is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster.’’ Have a safe and healthy week.

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