Watching my childhood idol make history

A memento from Bill Rankin attending the game in which Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's record.
A memento from Bill Rankin attending the game in which Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's record.

Credit: Photo courtesy Bill Rankin

Credit: Photo courtesy Bill Rankin

Up on the wall in my room was a poster with about 25 to 30 box scores neatly taped to it. They were the last games my childhood hero, Henry Aaron, had hit a home run.

It was my countdown. That graceful, quiet man with the whip-like wrists was the absolute world to me. I know this sounds crazy, but because he wore the No. 44, I’ve always tried to step over a crack or reach the top of a stairway with my fourth step. All for Hank.

I’d recently taped up the box score for No. 714 – the homer he hit off Jack Billingham of the Cincinnati Reds to tie Babe Ruth’s record with his first swing of the season April 4, 1974.

Now it was four days later and I was standing outside of Atlanta Stadium (as it was then known) with my dad. At the time, he was a city editor for The Atlanta Constitution, and he’d somehow managed to get tickets for the Braves’ home opener.

The electricity in the air was overwhelming, and a threat of rain only heightened my anxieties. When we got to our seats, I couldn’t believe it. We were about 25 rows up between home plate and first base. Fantastic.

When Aaron came to bat in the bottom of the second, no one was sitting in their seats. And when Los Angeles lefty Al Downing walked Aaron I howled with derision as my hero casually trotted down to first. “Throw him a strike!” I yelled, along with thousands of others.

When Aaron got his second chance in the fourth inning, Downing’s first pitch was in the dirt. More boos followed, and I began to feel despair. Was Aaron ever going to get a pitch to hit? Maybe this wasn’t going to be the night.

But Downing’s next pitch changed everything. It was in the Hammer’s wheelhouse.

I can still remember the crack of the bat – Aaron’s first swing of the game – and the ball taking a path I’d seen so many times before. What followed next was sheer pandemonium.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had when he rounded third, touched home plate and was enveloped in a bear hug by his mother, Estella. My entire body was tingling with joy, and the immense feeling wouldn’t go away. Tears streamed down my cheeks.

It almost seemed like a dream. Did this really happen? But reality set back in when I gave my dad my own bear hug, thanking him so much for getting the tickets. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

ExploreVideo: Relive the night Hank Aaron hit 715

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