by Kevin Franklin
April 1, 1974.
It was a day like any other for an eight year old kid: stealing money from my mom to buy baseball cards, popping wheelies on my Huffy and grabbing a Pop-Tart on the way out the door to school that morning. But something was slightly different. That was the day I played my first game of organized baseball. I was originally supposed to play for the Giants, but I learned the night before I was going to play for the Braves instead.
For me, this was great news. My very first baseball card was a 1973 Darrell Evans.
Hey, if he could play for the Braves, so could I! I had no idea what a Brave was. Hell, i still don’t know what a Phillie, Flyer or Sixer is. So, I went down to the field behind one of the elementary schools, wearing my brown Braves jersey and ill-fitting cap and proceeded to chew on my glove, flick dandelion heads off their stems and wonder what the hell I was supposed to be doing. I don’t remember much from that game except for the fact my Dad bought me ice cream afterward. Dad had the Argent In Deep 8-track cranked in his ’69 GTO and he was so proud I think he almost considered sharing the joint he was enjoying.
I remember being all excited about playing in my first game. I went to stay with my grandparents in Chester that weekend and my grandmother was so happy for me she took me down to Don’s delicatessen to buy some baseball cards. The 1974 series was just in and she bought me a boat load. Somewhere around the third or fourth pack, I saw something called a “Hank Aaron Special” card. I thought it looked cool. Then, there it was, the 1974 Hany Aaron card. Man, did that look awesome! I had no idea who this Hank Aaron dude was, but the card was great:
I had never watched a baseball game before, but I turned over the card and started memorizing his statistics. I did the same with all of the cards. None of them seemed to be as stupendously awesome as Aaron’s. I was a fan. On the news, they said he only needed one more home run to pass someone named Babe Ruth. When I went back to school that Monday, I checked out a book on his life from the library called “Hammerin’ Hank”. I thought it was great his birthday was only two days after mine, but man was he old! He was 40, which was darned near ancient. My Dad said the Braves were on TV that night and wanted to know if I wanted to watch with him. It was April 8, 1974.
I had spent most of that weekend poring over my baseball cards. I knew about Aaron and Evans, but I also now knew about Phil Neikro, Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker and some guys named Norm Miller and Frank Tepedino – only because it seemed every pack had either Norm Miller or Frank Tepedino in it. I also dug the uniforms, which were much cooler than our shit-brown colors.
At eight years old, you have the attention span of a goldfish. But, there I was, with my “uniform” and glove, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, so close to the television I probably made myself sterile, when the bottom of the fourth inning rolled around. Al Downing was on the hill for the Dodgers (yeah, I had his card, too) and I thought it was super cool that both he and Hank Aaron wore uniform #44. I remember the announcers were practically frothing at the possibility of what could happen. This was my very first game and I was kicking myself that I had never seen a game before that night. Every second passed like a kidney stone. My heart thumping out a deep forest Amazonian beat. Then Downing went into his windup and came out of the curl with an inside laser. Time stopped.
With a lightning flash of the bat from two of the quickest wrists in baseball history, a nuclear collision of wood and rawhide launched the ball high into the nighttime April sky. The camera instantly flashed to the Bank Americard advertisement just beyond the left-centerfield wall. A desperate leap by the leftfielder produced no fruit. Atlanta reliever Tom House caught the ball and the entire Braves bullpen broke for the field like a jailbreak. As Aaron circled the bases, two fans escorted him along the way. It was bedlam. I couldn’t speak. Hell, I couldn’t breathe. I had just seen history being made in my very first game. THE record of all records in all professional sports. Yes, Henry Louis Aaron made history that night, but more importantly, to me, he made a lifetime fan.
I have never been one for idolizing heroes in music, movies or sports. To this very day, Hank Aaron is the only person whom I would say is my idol. It wasn’t just that game. I read Hammerin’ Hank about a dozen times. I knew he played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League. I even have a replica hat of that team. I knew when he received his first pay for $100, he asked for it to all be in one dollar bills so it looked like he had a lot of money. I knew all about the racism he faced throughout his career and life. I knew I wanted to be like Hank Aaron, if not the baseball player, then the man.
Fast forward to a bar in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in September 1998. I was on a business trip and the rest of my traveling party went to a strip club. Normally, I would have been right there, stuffing sweaty singles into a G-string, but I knew the Cardinals were playing that night and Mark McGwire was tied with Roger Maris for most home runs in a season, with 61. There was no talk of steroids and andro or any of that. It was a race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa to see who would get to 62 first. Just like it was 24 years earlier, it was the 8th of the month and the bottom of the fourth inning. I’m sitting with my whiskey and ginger, transfixed to the screen, wondering if there was another young person out there watching. I am wondering if he or she is watching their first ever game. Cubs pitcher, Steve Trachsel, goes right at him. McGwire ripped a line drive which barely cleared the wall. Again, bedlam. McGwire is so flummoxed he almost misses touching first base. After that, there was nothing to see. History had been made yet again.
Since that time, performance-enhancing drugs have become as much a part of the sports lexicon as free agency and ludicrous signing bonuses. McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds, the player who would go on to pirate both the single season and all-time home run records, would be called to the carpet officially and in the court of public opinion. It is a scar which remains on the history of the game. It angers me sometimes, I’ll freely admit. Sure, there is some anger at Hank Aaron’s eventual total of 755 home runs being eclipsed by someone who I feel does not deserve that record, but my memories are secure and eternal. However, that’s not the anger I feel when I think about the bastardization of sports’ most hallowed record.
It’s the anger I feel when I think about any of those kids watching their first game when McGwire went long for #62. I only wish they had a Hank Aaron of their own to remember.