On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron became baseball’s all-time home run champ* hitting his 715th career homer. Just so you know, 1974 is the same year that Post-It Notes and Rubik’s Cube were invented and Pop Rocks were introduced.
Aaron’s journey to 715 began on April 23, 1954 when Henry hit his first dinger off the Cardinals’ Vic Raschi. But the story of this historic homer had its roots on September 29, 1970.
On that day, Oakland beat the American League Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3. The winning pitcher was Catfish Hunter. The losing pitcher was Al Downing. That was the last game #36 Downing pitched for the Brewers. It was also the last game for Terry Francona‘s father Tito Francona who pinch-hit and struck out.
On February 10, 1971, Downing was traded to the Dodgers for Andy Kosco and donned the Dodger blue #44. That season Downing had his only 20-win year going 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA. But over the next two seasons, Downing went 9-9 each year.
On April 8, 1974 at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, in the Braves fourth game of the season, in front of a national TV audience #44 of the Dodgers made his first start of the season facing #44 of the Braves, Henry Aaron, who had 714 homers, the same as Babe Ruth.
In the 2nd inning Downing walked Aaron, an event that brought a torrent of boos. They wanted to see Aaron hit. They wanted to see the homer.
They got their wish in the bottom of the 4th (yes, game 4, 4th inning. The Dodgers were up 3-1 and leading off for the Braves was Darrell Evans who reached on a Bill Russell error.
Up to the plate came Hank
“I walked him first time up, and everybody booed me,” Downing told Lyle Spencer on MLB.com, “It was the second pitch [in a 1-0 count], and I was trying to get the double play. I wanted to get a fastball down in the strike zone, hoping he’d roll over. It was elevated — and ‘The Hammer’ put the hammer on it.”
Let’s go to Vin Scully’s call
Yes, Scully said “Buckner” watched the ball go over his head and into the bullpen caught by pitcher Tom House.
House recalled, “I honestly have no recollection of anything until I got to home plate where a whole lot of players, coaches and miscellaneous people were surrounding Aaron, his mom, and his bodyguard, Calvin Wardlaw. I pushed my way through the crowd and as I got to Aaron, who was hugging is mother, I reached out with the ball and said, “Here it is Hammer.” He took it from me and said, “Thanks, kid.” “What stunned me were the tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.”
But just so you know, that was indeed the same Bill Buckner who was the Dodger left fielder and would have his own historic moment 12 years later.
“I never say ‘seven-fifteen’ anymore. I now say ‘quarter after seven.’”… Al Downing
*Home Run Champions by Era
Pre-Historic Era – Harry Stovey finished his career in 1893 with 122 “homers”
Dead Ball Era – Roger Connor, retired in 1897, with 138 homers
National Pastime Era – Babe Ruth – 714 homers
Integration Era – Henry Aaron – 755 homers
Steroid Era – Barry B*nds – 762 homers
A version on this article first appeared on GammonsDaily in 2014