The day Hank tied the Babe
For a few glorious days in the spring of 1974, baseball knocked Watergate off the front page.
Henry Aaron, the dignified Atlanta Braves outfielder, tied -- and then passed -- George Herman "Babe" Ruth's mammoth career home run record. It remains one of our national game's special moments. It looks even better in the rearview as the page turns from the steroids scandal.
A few days ago, a friend brought me a yellowed copy of the April 5, 1974, edition of the Atlanta Constitution, the day after Hammerin' Hank tied the Babe in Cincinnati.
It was a cloudy, rainy Friday in the ATL. Tornadoes had ravaged north Georgia, killing 16. Gov. Jimmy Carter was touring the 13 disaster areas.
On page 2, the Nixon White House announced that the president would be all but "wiped out" after repaying $467,000 in back taxes. Jack Anderson, that murky muckraker, had plenty to say about that in his weekly column. The legendary James "Scotty" Reston celebrated the anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty in his weekly thoughts and mused a minute on the geopolitical ramifications of French President Pompidou's death.
But, even on the editorial page, you couldn't escape Hank's homer. The cartoon depicted the Babe's ghost following Aaron around the bases. "One more time," Babe says, as he pats a trotting Aaron on the back.
The front page story by sports editor Jesse Outlar told the tale. Aaron hit No. 714 during his first swing of the afternoon at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham. Sports writer Wayne Minshew wrote the best lead, though. Back in the sports section, he said, "As far as Hank Aaron is concerned, a tie is something you get for Christmas. The big one is next."
And, in true Aaron fashion, Hank later said the homer didn't mean all that much after his team lost the game. Imagine who would say that today? Barry Bonds sure wouldn't.
One reporter ducked into an Atlanta bar to get reaction. Most were glad to see it. One guy said he let his entire crew off on opening day so they could witness history. Another guy said he loved it, too, but didn't want to give his name. He was supposed to be at work. Yet another patron griped about how many more at-bats Aaron took to catch the Babe. He was told to take a hike.
In April 1974, you could buy a Whirlpool automatic washer for $174. A portable television cost $88. Oh, and Frank Sinatra was singing at the Omni that next weekend. The expensive seats were 15 bucks.
A family could sit in front of the tube that night and watch "The Six Million Dollar Man" on ABC. "Serpico" and "The Sting" were playing at the cinema. JC Penney was having a 20 percent off sale on polyester pants.
Perhaps the best realization for me is that I could have learned all of these interesting tidbits that long ago Friday by coughing up a mere 10 cents. I'm too lazy to adjust the cost for inflation, but it would still be a better deal. Even if you overlook all the fuss over Aaron, the Constitution served up three big-time national columnists, solid sports coverage, an interesting feature story about an Amtrak ride across the country and a column on "Old Atlanta Mysteries."
In short, readers got their money's worth. I am not sure that happens today. Might be part of the reason national newspaper circulation is locked in a free fall.
Nineteen seventy-four wasn't a memorable year. Nixon resigned. Southeast Asia continued to smolder. Pundits and pocketbooks everywhere worried about an energy crisis.
But, on April 5, 1974, in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution, none of that mattered. Hank Aaron had tied a legend.
The world could wait.