© 2024 KRWG
News that Matters.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

50 years later, Hank Aaron's famous hit that broke Babe Ruth's record

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fifty years ago, the attention of much of the nation was on Atlanta, Ga. Henry "Hank" Aaron of the Atlanta Braves was on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth's legendary home run record of 714. In that night's game against the LA Dodgers, Aaron hit the ball over the left field fence for his record-breaking home run. Reporter Steve Futterman takes us back to that night.

STEVE FUTTERMAN, BYLINE: It was the evening of April 8, 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The following NBC sports program is brought to you in living color.

FUTTERMAN: Thirty-five million Americans sat in front of their TVs. Never before had so many people watched a regular season baseball game. On the Atlanta Braves Radio Network...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNIE JOHNSON SR: Here to describe it, Milo Hamilton.

MILO HAMILTON: I thank you, Ernie, very much. And hello again, everybody. We are set to go.

FUTTERMAN: ...For those tuning in, there was just one question. Would Henry Aaron break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record? The man trying to prevent that from happening was LA Dodger pitcher Al Downing.

AL DOWNING: I was a historian. I was a historian. And I love Henry Aaron. I love Willie Mays. Those guys were pioneers. And so when you got a chance to play against those guys, it's like you're playing against the creme de la creme, you know?

FUTTERMAN: Originally, Downing was supposed to pitch the day before against the San Diego Padres. But a change in the Dodgers' rotation put Downing on the mound that night. Speaking recently, he recalled an electric atmosphere at the stadium.

DOWNING: I was thinking, boy, this is going to be a big night. I wonder what it's going to be like. And when I got there, I saw all these buses (laughter). They must have had 11 marching bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: And this crowd is up. Henry Aaron is coming to bat for the first time at home.

FUTTERMAN: Aaron's first at bat resulted in a walk and boos from the Atlanta fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: Downing will be booed if he does and booed if he doesn't. There's no way Downing can win in this battle.

FUTTERMAN: In the fourth inning, Aaron came up again and, this time, history.

Would you mind watching the home run with me?

DOWNING: Not at all. Where is it?

FUTTERMAN: I'm going to put it on the - find it here.

DOWNING: Oh, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: Here's the pitch by Downing - swinging. There's a drive into left center field. That ball is going to be out of here. It's gone. It's 715. There's a new home run champion of all time. And it's Henry Aaron. The fireworks are going. Henry Aaron is coming around third. His teammates are at home plate. And listen to this crowd.

FUTTERMAN: What's it like watching it?

DOWNING: I loved watching that.

FUTTERMAN: Downing remembers the exact pitch ordered up by his catcher, Joe Ferguson.

DOWNING: He calls a fastball inside, which I didn't get far enough inside. And that's the ball he hit over the fence. Now, that happens to pitchers all the time. Sometimes they pop that pitch up. Sometimes they hit a line drive to the center field. It just so happened this ball went over the fence. And it just happened to be the greatest home run probably in that the last part of the century. But the point is you don't dwell on it.

FRED CLAIRE: Al was the perfect guy to deliver that pitch, as strange as that may sound.

FUTTERMAN: In 1974, Fred Claire was the Dodgers' vice president of communications. Reflecting now, he says if that had happened to other pitchers, it would have crushed them.

CLAIRE: The pitcher crying out, this is not my career; this is not the only thing I've ever done, and becoming very defensive about it. With Al, it was simply an acceptance of what had happened.

FUTTERMAN: How have you dealt with the fact that you gave up this famous home run?

DOWNING: Part of life. You have to embrace it. I mean, how else can it be?

FUTTERMAN: Never any depression after it.

DOWNING: I couldn't afford to be depressed.

FUTTERMAN: But that night, going to sleep.

DOWNING: No.

FUTTERMAN: The day after the home run, the Braves and Dodgers played again. Beforehand, Aaron and Downing got together for a brief chat.

DOWNING: Right after we'd gotten in the clubhouse - maybe half an hour later - one of the clubhouse kids came to me and said, Mr. Aaron wants to talk with you, and he wants to meet with you behind the batting cage at home plate. I said, good. So I went out there. Henry was out there. And he says to me - he says, Al, don't feel badly. He says, I had to get that over with. You're still a wonderful pitcher. And you don't let this affect, you know, your status as a pitcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: Henry Aaron has done it at the age of 40, April the 8, 1974.

FUTTERMAN: Now, 50 years later, Al Downing is largely unknown to a new generation of baseball fans. Still, he appreciates his role in that historic moment and accepts being remembered as the man who threw the pitch. For NPR News, I'm Steve Futterman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Futterman
[Copyright 2024 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore]