In the twilight morning hours of April 8, 1974, there was a line of baseball fans waiting for the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium ticket windows to open.
Henry Aaron had 714 career homers after going deep in the season opener four days earlier in Cincinnati. This would be the home opener for Aaron’s Atlanta Braves – and tickets were available.
That one fact reflected the America that Aaron faced as he approached Babe Ruth’s heretofore sacred mark of 714. A season opener, with the longtime star of the hometown team about to make history, wasn’t sold out the morning of the game. Ruth was the hero that generations held up as the country’s most memorable athlete. He was white. Aaron was not, and was playing in the Southern-most major-league city of the time.
Tickets were available.
At 17, with my parents and two sisters waiting in a motor home in the stadium parking lot, I was in that line. We were on our way back to Michigan after a spring break family trip to Florida – likely the last such trip with me being the first of three college enrollments over the next three years. I was the biggest baseball fan in our family, but we all rooted for the Tigers and had a family outing to Tiger Stadium every season. Years earlier, I had taught my sisters how to keep a scorecard and my father splurged to get box seats as close to the action as possible.
When Aaron connected against the Reds’ Jack Billingham on April 4 to tie Ruth, I immediately started lobbying for a pause on the return trip, skip the first two days of classes after the break (I was graduating anyway) and see if 1) we could find out if there were tickets and 2) spend the night in the stadium lot so I could be in line by 6 a.m. on Monday the 8th.
My father was, to put it mildly, skeptical. In pre-digital America, there was one way to get tickets if you weren’t a season-ticket holder: Wait in line. Some – most — franchises had fan bases so passionate that when they were made available in January, customers would stretch for blocks in the middle of winter in order to purchase Opening Day tickets. That was what my family was used to with the Tigers, and almost certainly what would have happened if the Braves were still based in Milwaukee.
But the franchise had moved south a decade earlier. There weren’t historical baseball roots – let alone deep ones — in a city that had been the home of Dr. Martin Luther King but remained divided by race. The Braves had only existed in town for eight seasons and with the exception of a division title in 1969 had generated so little enthusiasm than in 1973, as Aaron reached 40 homers for the eighth time in his career and hit No. 713 on the next-to-last home game of the season, only 800,000 fans bothered to come to the ballpark.
Although the depth of the racial slurs and threats would only be fully understood in later years, it was already known that Aaron was the target of relentless hatred. I was raised in a small Michigan town that was essentially all white, yet was a fan of Muhammad Ali, O.J. and Kareem as much as Al Kaline, Gordie Howe and Jack Nicklaus. I knew Aaron was overcoming American biases, if lacking a grasp on the severity of the challenges he faced.
My father was certain we would be leaving Atlanta ticketless that morning, until I was skipping back to the motor home. About 13 hours later, we were in the right field upper deck as Aaron’s second at-bat against the Dodgers’ Al Downing made history.
It was a most eventful day. NBC was going to broadcast the game nationally on a Monday night, which was unprecedented that early in the season, years before ESPN and regional sports networks. Major League Baseball’s contract with the network was good for one broadcast per week, always on Saturday afternoon. Other than that, you could only watch your hometown team in the 40 or so times it deigned to do so.
So we watched the NBC production trucks unloading equipment and running cables – we wouldn’t leave the parking lot in fear that we wouldn’t be able to get back in. I know we didn’t pay anyone for the Sunday night stay and may not have paid Monday as well. Yes, it was a different time. We still had some food in the motor home and played cards until a late-afternoon thunderstorm blew through the area — there were tornado watches.
I’m sure my parents worried about damage to the bus. I worried about a rainout. Dad wasn’t interested in hanging around until Tuesday night.
A very warm day had turned blustery and cool as the gates opened around 5 p.m. There was going to be a special pre-game ceremony for Aaron’s friends and family to be honored, and a United States map was painted in the outfield. Former teammates took spots on the map and Aaron spoke briefly, hoping that he could get things over as soon as possible.
The stadium was full, finally.
We sat about halfway up the right-field pavilion — because the stadium was a dual-purpose setup able to accommodate the NFL’s Falcons, there were no field-level seats in the outfield. The stands started about 15 feet above the grass, with a few yards of additional separation from the outfield fencing. We were high enough to have a clear view, but far enough removed that crowd noise from home plate was delayed in reaching us.
Aaron’s first at-bat was a second-inning walk, and he scored the night’s first run on a Dusty Baker double. But the Dodgers led 3-1 when Aaron returned to the plate in the fourth, with Darrell Evans on first after a Los Angeles error.
His earlier walk had been accompanied by heavy boos from the stands. A night with NBC cameras and a pregame ceremony was going to be marked by the Dodgers not pitching to Aaron? Downing’s first pitch in the fourth was another ball, and the boos swelled in volume. Everyone seemed to be standing, even in right field. Maybe the sounds and the sights of so many people, waiting for something, anything other than another walk made Downing change his plan of attack.
The ball was heading toward the outfield before we could hear the crack of the bat. It was a line drive, skimming along perhaps 25 feet about the field at its highest point – all of us in right could see that it wasn’t a sure thing, and Dodgers leftfielder Bill Buckner was already climbing the fence when the ball cleared by a couple of feet and was caught by Braves reliever Tom House in the Atlanta bullpen.
It seemed like everyone in our section jumped at the same time, shaking the structure such that you had to catch yourself from tumbling into the next row. My parents applauded, I and my sisters screamed. My hands shook as I tried to fill in the scorecard. There was joy, astonishment at our good fortune and an adrenalin surge that left you dizzy. We watched as Aaron was greeted by his mother with a hug so strong that he would later joke that he thought she would never let go.
By the end of the sixth, the Braves were leading 7-4, the cold front that had brought the afternoon storm had dropped the temperatures by 20 degrees and 80 percent of the crowd had left the stadium. My parents and youngest sister had retired to the motor home, leaving their blankets with me and Peg to compete the scorecard with three scoreless innings.
We drove through most of the night and eventually got home the next afternoon. I kept the scorecard and when Aaron was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers the next season got to Tiger Stadium early enough one afternoon to get his autograph on it. A couple of years later, while I was off at college, the scorecard was the victim of a thorough housecleaning.
But the memories haven’t faded. It was a singular night, with a singular talent overcoming singular challenges to become legend.
With 80 more home games that season to celebrate the all-time home run king, the Braves still didn’t reach a million fans. Didn’t have a crowd larger than 20K until late May.
Tickets, as were the case that spring morning, were always available.