Saturday, April 5, 2014

His Finest Hour

"The only way it could have been better would have been for Henry to hit the very first pitch, the one thrown by Gerald Ford."

Red Smith
April 5, 1974

On a sun–drenched Thursday afternoon in April 1974, Hank Aaron hit the home run that everyone had been waiting for since the last regular–season game of 1973.

It was the 714th home run of his career, pulling him even with Babe Ruth on the all–time list.

He had been one home run behind the Babe since Saturday, Sept. 29, 1973, when he hit a homer off Jerry Reuss. He went three for four the next day, the last of the '73 season, but he didn't hit the tying home run.

What is remembered the most about the next six months is that Aaron was subjected to the most bigoted series of attacks since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier a quarter of a century earlier. That is certainly true. By the time Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves opened the 1974 season, the hype had reached a level that was unheard–of in my then–young life but has been exceeded several times since.

What is less remembered is another controversy that surrounded the Braves' season opener. Atlanta's first three games were in Cincinnati. The Braves' front office wanted him to tie and then break the record — as everyone, even those who still hoped he would not, believed he would do — and also wanted him to sit out that three–game road series.

When the Braves left Cincinnati, they would open an 11–game home stand in Atlanta. Aaron was 40 years old, but, surely, the Braves' management reasoned, he could hit two home runs at home.

Baseball's commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, ruled that he had to play in two of the three games in Cincinnati.
"When they said, 'Suppose the commissioner orders the Braves to play you,' he said that in that event he guessed the commissioner would have to make out Cincinnati's batting order, too. This smart–aleck line must have been fed to him for Henry isn't a smart aleck."

Red Smith

And he did. He played on Thursday, April 4, with Vice President Gerald Ford on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and he played on Sunday.

He quickly pulled even with the Babe, hitting a home run on his first swing of the season. He went hitless when he played in the Sunday game, but he had eliminated half of the Braves' marketing ploy with his home run.

The next day, as the Braves and Reds took the day off before resuming the series on Saturday, sportswriter Red Smith wrote, "What really counts is that when Henry laid the wood on Jack Billingham's fastball, he struck a blow for the integrity of the game and for public faith in the game."

Smith observed that "there was nothing contrived about the locale or the timing of the event. ... It was witnessed by a standing–room–only crowd of 52,154 who weren't lured in by Aaron but rather by the local tradition that dictates that every ambulatory citizen of Cincinnati must attend the opening game even if he doesn't show up again all summer."

It was a great opening–day story, all right.

"The way Henry did it removed all taint of commercialism," wrote Smith. "For this day, at least, the business of baseball made way for sport."

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