NBC televised Monday night baseball games off and on starting in 1966, but it wasn’t always “must-see TV” for me. My first vivid memories of sports date back to around 1967, and they almost exclusively center on tackle football (and mostly the New York Jets).
There were notable exceptions, of course. I rooted for the New York Yankees (pinstripes are cool) and Chicago Cubs (loved that baby bear logo), so I was more engaged when they were on. If Pop (my dad) was watching them, I’d usually join him.
And I always wanted to see games featuring Willie Mays and Hank Aaron because they were my favorite players when I was a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama.
That leads me to the NBC Monday Night Baseball game I remember best, played on April 8, 1974.
The Atlanta Braves hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers, which under normal circumstances would be just a run-of-the-mill early season clash between two National League West rivals. On this night however, Aaron – the Atlanta legend – was sharing Babe Ruth’s crown as baseball’s home run king but poised to take solo possession of the throne.
I was well aware of the historical implications. Everybody knew who Ruth was, and his 714 career home runs seemed like a record that would stand forever. But when Aaron blasted his 714th on April 4 at Cincinnati, it was apparent that forever would last only until the spring of 1974.
Making the chase even more remarkable was that the Braves right fielder was closing in on one of the most coveted records in sports while having to deal with hate mail and death threats from racists – vitriol that increased dramatically the closer he got to the milestone.
While Pop had been a huge fan of the Braves ever since the franchise relocated from Milwaukee, the team itself didn’t interest me nearly as much as Aaron himself.
He was piling up Hall of Fame-level hitting numbers even without the homers, and that impressed a young stat geek like me. What was most important, though, was that he and I were from the same state; I took great pride in Alabama stars, and in my world the ones who played sports shone the brightest.
Mays was a Birmingham native and former Birmingham Black Baron, thus I gravitated to him immediately and followed him closely until he retired in 1973. Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, and since I had relatives who lived there, that made him seem even more like a local hero.
So with Pop in his easy chair and me plopped on the couch, I watched every pitch to every batter just for the privilege of seeing “Hammerin’ Hank” come to the dish.
He drew a leadoff walk in the second inning and later scored his 2,063rd run, breaking a tie with Mays for most in National League history. That feat secured his 20th Major League Baseball and/or NL record overall.
In the fourth inning (at 8:07 p.m., CDT), Aaron delivered the big one.
With a 1-0 count and L.A. lefty Al Downing dealing, the 40-year old slugger smacked a fastball over the left field fence, prompting me to leap off the couch and thrust both arms in the air. I had just seen history made, and it was made by a man from my home state.
Pop was happy, too – but even happier five innings later after the Braves secured a 7-4 victory and handed the Dodgers their first loss of the young season. He supported Atlanta’s big league team through thick and thin, and there was so much thin back in the day, any win was extra special.
Now at this point you might expect me to tell you how that game turned me into a serious baseball fan, but that’s not exactly the case. As happy as I was for Aaron – and proud – it was really the early 1980s before I grew passionate about the sport.
Yet if I’m gonna mark significant memories in my journey as a fan, April 8, 1974, ranks right up there. I never let the date pass without acknowledging the most historic NBC Monday Night Baseball game ever played.