Who hit the first home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium? Hint: His name was Aaron.
That was one of Col. Bruce Hampton’s favorite trivia questions, partly because Bruce was there to witness that inaugural moonshot, and partly because most people got the answer wrong. The correct answer is Tommie Aaron, who was Hammerin’ Henry’s little brother. Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the first game in the Atlanta ballpark, an exhibition between the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Braves on April 9, 1965.
Tommie’s 3-run homer paced the Braves to a 6-3 win in the brand new stadium. Soon after, they embarked on their last season in Milwaukee before moving to Atlanta in 1966, and making the ‘Launching Pad’ their home field for the next 30 years.
But today is the anniversary of the most important and most famous home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium history, Henry Aaron’s 715th, the blast that made him baseball’s king of clout, pushing him past Babe Ruth in the all-time record books. I’ll never forget that night, April 8, 1974, a few minutes past 9 o’clock – the jumping and the screaming in our den, me and my brothers and sisters, as Bad Henry circled the bases after taking Dodgers lefty Al Downing deep.
We lived in the Atlanta suburbs at the time. I was 13 years old, and at the very height of my baseball fandom. Henry Aaron was like God to me. I’d already managed to secure his autograph (twice – once in person at the stadium, another time through the mail), and had prayed for him to catch the Babe in 1973, when he gave a furious chase.
I’ve got a bunch of Henry Aaron stuff lying about. When I was 13, he was God to me.
He had 713 career dingers, one behind Ruth, on the last day of the 1973 season, a few days after my birthday. The Houston Astros were in town and 40,000 people – including me and Dad – showed up on a Sunday afternoon to see if Henry could tie the record. He didn’t, and the Braves lost, 5-3. But Henry had three singles to finish one of the best seasons any 39-year-old ever had, with an impressive .301/.402/.634 slash line (to go with his 40 home runs in just 392 at bats).
Though we left the ball park a little disappointed that Aaron didn’t hit a homer, I still get chills when thinking about the tremendous ovation he received that day after flying out in his final at bat. Just being part of that scene with Dad is one of life’s highlights for me, and one of the best birthday presents I ever received. We talked about that happy day for the rest of Dad’s life.
Which brings us to today’s anniversary, and that moment 48 years ago. Just … wow. Did I mention chills already? When it comes to Henry Aaron, the things he did just become more astounding to me the older I get. Because I’ve had more time to consider it. If you’ve wiled away, or whittled away, as many minutes as I have just thinking about baseball, you’ve probably considered it, too.
All of those home runs over so many years, the sheer persistency of it. And the consistency of it. From 1955 through 1973, Aaron hit between 27 and 47 home runs a year, smashing 40 or more eight times. Year after year after year, he just kept coming. And pitchers kept getting whiplash, snapping their heads back, watching line drives whistle over distant fences.
The most amazing thing about chasing the Babe was how Henry was able to focus against Major League pitching even while racist nut-jobs were sending him death threats. Aaron once told me the supportive letters outnumbered the hate mail and buoyed his spirits, but there was a lot of hate mail, enough to turn what should have been a completely joyful experience into a traumatic ordeal for one of the game’s greatest players.
In an interview with Atlanta radio station WABE later in his life, Henry called those days the saddest he had in baseball and questioned whether or not he’d go through it again. But he also recalled what it was like to actually play the game, what it was like between the foul lines, where his otherworldly talents – a rare combination of power and grace – always were evident.
“I didn’t have any trouble on the baseball field,” he said. “On the field itself, playing the game was probably as easy for me as anything.”