It was a simple act by an unassuming man that touched an enormous circle of people, indeed an entire country. It provided an instant that people would remember for decades—exactly what they were doing at the time of the home run that beat Babe Ruth's great record, whether they were watching it on a television set, or heard it over the car radio while driving along the turnpike at night, or even whether a neighbor leaned over a fence and told them about it the next morning.
For those who sat in the stadium in Atlanta, their recollections would be more intimate—the sharp cork-popping sound of the bat hitting the ball, startlingly audible in the split second of suspense before the crowd began a roar that lasted for more than 10 minutes. Perhaps that is what they would remember—how people stood in front of their scats and sucked in air and bellowed it out in a sustained tribute that few athletes have ever received. Or perhaps they would remember their wonder at how easy and inevitable it seemed—that having opened the season in Cincinnati by hitting the tying home run, No. 714, with his first swing of the year, it was obviously appropriate that the man who has been called Supe (for Superman) by his teammates was going to duplicate the feat in Atlanta with his first swing of that game. That was why 53,775 had come. Or perhaps they would remember the odd way the stadium emptied after the excitement of the fourth inning, as if the crowd felt that what it had seen would be diluted by sitting through any more baseball that night.
And then finally there were those few in the core of that immense circle—the participants themselves—who would be the ones most keenly touched: the pitcher, in this case a pleasant, gap-toothed veteran named Al Downing, who, of the more than 100 National League pitchers, happened to be the one who threw a fastball at a certain moment that did not tail away properly; the hitter, Henry Aaron, for whom the event, despite his grace in dealing with it, had become so traumatic that he relished little in the instant except the relief that it was done; the Braves' announcer, Milo Hamilton, whose imagination for months had been working up words to describe the event to the outside world; and a young bullpen pitcher, Tom House, who would reach up in the air and establish contact with a ball whose monetary value as baseball's greatest talisman was pegged at $25,000 and whose sentimental value was incalculable....
The poor guy. All those years toiling on the mound, peering down the long alley toward the plate at those constant disturbers of his sense of well-being settling into their stances and flicking their bats—and then to look down one day and find Henry Aaron there, the large, peaceful, dark face with the big eyes and the high forehead, and to know that one mistake, one small lapse of concentration, would place the pitcher's name forever in the record books as having thrown the "immortal gopher."
Perhaps there are some pitchers around the league who would not mind being identified with Aaron's eclipsing of Ruth's record. Tracy Stallard, who was a young Boston Red Sox rookie when he gave up the home run to Roger Maris that broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 hit in a year, afterward rather enjoyed the back-of-the-hand notoriety that came with being a victim of Maris's clout, and he would announce, to the point of volunteering, that he was the pitcher responsible. Most pitchers, though, are sensitive enough about their craft to feel differently about such a role. Ray Sadecki once said of Stallard, "I don't want to be him. Everybody knows who he is. Nobody knows where he is."
Those scheduled in the rotation against the Atlanta Braves in the final weeks of last season and the opening days of the 1974 schedule were uncomfortably aware that they were involved in a sort of cosmic game of Russian roulette, it being inevitable that one of them was going to give up the 715th home run.
The pitcher opposing Aaron in Atlanta on the last day of the 1973 season was Houston Astro lefthander Dave Roberts. Before the game he sat in front of his locker looking crestfallen. "What I should be doing is concentrating on my 17th victory of the year," he said. "But I've been thinking about him. I thought about him all last night. He was just deposited there in my mind. What really got me was that I knew he wasn't thinking about me at all. I wished I'd known his home telephone number, so's I could have called him every 20 minutes—'How's it going, Hank?'—just to let him know I was around."
In that game Roberts survived three Aaron turns at bat by giving up three singles that raised the batter's average to .301. Then, perhaps with his nervous system betraying him, the pitcher pulled a muscle in his back in the middle of the seventh inning and was removed. In such a situation the relieving pitcher is allowed as much time as he wants to warm up. Don Wilson, Roberts's reliever, off whom Aaron had hit his 611th home run, said later that as he stood on the mound it crossed his mind just to keep on warming up indefinitely, shaking his head and saying, "No, not yet," to the umpire until the night fell and the moon came up, and perhaps at 10:30 the next morning some sort of statute of limitations would run out the season and he would be able to pack up and go home, sore-armed but assuaged.
The pitcher who through personal experience knows more about Aaron's specialty than anyone in baseball is the tall, sidearm, whip-motion Dodger righthander, Don Drysdale, now retired from active baseball and working as a broadcaster with the California Angels. [Drysdale died of a heart attack in July 1993.] Aaron hit the astonishing total of 17 home runs off him. Next down the line is Claude Osteen, who has been touched for 13, and when his rotation comes up against the Braves, Drysdale often calls him on the phone (the two were Dodger teammates) to remind him that Drysdale would be delighted to be taken off the hook for being Aaron's special patsy. ("Now, Claude, don't let down. That record is within reach.")