I was there when 'The Hammer' made history

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The Golden Ticket!

Forty-five years ago Monday Hank Aaron put Atlanta sports on the map when he took Al Downing deep in his second at-bat on a cool April night at Fulton County Stadium. Seven hundred and fifteen. Baseball's most famous number, unless you ask Joe DiMaggio fans who'll stick with sixty-two, or Cal Ripken faithful who will try to spit out two thousand, six-hundred thirty-two in converstation- rolls right off the tongue.

715. You know it. The Hammer owns it.

714. Babe Ruth still lays claim to that number, after all, the Sultan of Swat held the major league home run record for nearly forty years before Hank put an asterisk next to it.

756 you ask? That’s still a Giant lie as far as I’m concerned. Where were you when Barry Bonds vaulted past the great Henry Louis Aaron? Right. You don’t remember and neither do I.

But I can tell you where I was when Aaron set the real home run record. I was sitting in the upper deck on the third base side of Atlanta Fulton County stadium, shivering just a little with my mom by my side, watching my favorite team play the Dodgers.

Fast forward four and a half decades- April 7th, 2019 to be exact. Yesterday. That’s when I was sitting on the floor in my nearly empty basement sorting through years of old family photographs in preparation for a move out of suburbia, and back to Decatur- where I learned to love the game of baseball in the first place. Leafing through the old memories, I came across a parchment paper with the number 715 printed boldly in gold on the bottom right corner. My heart literally skipped a beat. I was sure that my historic certificate had been lost long ago, leaving an 11-year old’s memory to reconstruct and validate the images from April 8th, 1974.

I realized quickly that the surface was just being scratched. Underneath the 715 certificate were two tickets, and another piece of paper proclaiming that I has there for Hank’s 700th home run as well, when he launched a rope into the left-center field seats against Phillies lefty Ken Brett. We were sitting in outfield general admission that day, where our family usually sat. I remember those seats used to cost 50 cents, but I guess inflation got the best of baseball that year and we paid a full dollar.

My mom and dad had only recently been divorced when our city was overtaken by Aaron’s power surge, so I suppose they both felt some degree of responsibility to ensure their sports-crazed progeny continued to get his fix of the Braves and their cast of characters. I was always partial to Ralph Garr and Sonny Jackson. Garr because he was known as the Road-Runner and they would play the “Beep-Beep” theme from the cartoon series when he came to the plate; and Jackson because he wore these big glasses when he played, and I thought that was cool- plus he was small like me. Anyway, my dad liked to claim he took me to Aaron’s 715th homerun game, but God rest his soul, he was wrong. While the ole paterfamilias certainly was responsible for a large portion of my baseball obsession, it was mom who hit for the cycle during the late fall of ’73 and into the spring of ’74.

Joan Zeller loved sports, but I’ve learned over the years that she loved her kids more. That’s why she bought tickets to some of the final games of the 1973 season in hopes that she and her son would witness history, as Aaron attempted to tie The Babe. Of course, Hank waited nearly six months to make that happen, at 1974’s opening day in Cincinnati. After Hank pulled even with the legendary Bronx Bomber, mom and I became instant Reds fans, praying that Aaron would be swallowed up by the Big Red Machine for the remaining games in Ohio and wait until he returned to Atlanta to finally break Ruth’s record. Our prayers were answered.

It was a school night for me, but that didn’t matter to my mother. This was high church. I remember there was a big pregame ceremony and a freshly painted red, white and blue flag decorated the outfield grass. They honored Aaron’s career with dignitary after dignitary paying tribute to Atlanta’s biggest sports star. Ushers handed out pamphlets with Aaron’s career statistics on them-and the certificates of course. All I remember about the actual home run was that huge, dot-matrix scoreboard in left field flashing the number 715 after the blast came to rest in Tom House’s glove just over the fence near the Braves bullpen. There was someone holding a huge fish net dangling down from the bleachers who tried, but failed to steal House's moment, and the rest was a blur.

There is no question that Hank Aaron’s historic chase of The Babe lit a fire under me, forever linking me to sports and the city of my birth. I 'm truly blessed to have made sports broadcasting my life’s work, covering the Braves and the other Atlanta franchises as a member of my own team here at FOX 5. In fact, I had the opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with Hank Aaron just a few years back. So, finding that ancient, buried treasure in my basement gave me pause to reflect on some pretty special moments covering sports here in Atlanta.

How was it that I was in Minneapolis for the epic game 7 battle between Smoltz and Jack Morris? Was I really there when Sid slid? Is it possible that I stormed the field with other media members at Fulton County Stadium after Marquis Grissom squeezed the final out of 1995’s championship season? I’m pretty sure I was fortunate enough to be there -in person- for all of those magic moments. But, there’s no doubt where I was 45 years ago today. Right, Mom?