This week, the RedState Department of History watched baseball players shivering in the snow during the opening week of our National Pastime. In so doing, we lamented the “Great Sports Overlap” which means players are more likely to play the game in conditions where it was never meant to be played. Such as in the snow.
However, today marks the anniversary of one of the truly momentous events in baseball history. So while watching the Sunday games today, the Department recognizes the 44th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run.
Of course, the record he broke was Babe Ruth‘s. The Sultan of Swat remains one of the most beloved athletes in American history due in no small measure to his outsized personality. So as Aaron closed in on his record, it was done in a comparatively quiet and very understated way.
Aaron was a model of consistency. In his 23-year career, he hit 20 or more home runs in 20 straight seasons, 30 or more home runs 15 times and 40 or more home runs eight times.
Perhaps most amazingly, when he retired in 1976, Aaron was also second on baseball’s all time hit list, behind only Ty Cobb. He remains third on that list to this day. If you took his 755 career home runs out of his hit total, he’d still be over the 3,000 hit mark, which is considered an automatic standard for enshrinement in Cooperstown.
However, today’s entry has as much to do with another man as it does with Aaron. Baseball is famous for linking people in history — Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson are two, as are Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca.
Branca was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher when Thomson hit his “Shot Heard Round the World” for the New York Giants in 1951. They were linked forever after.
Aaron’s 715th home run started in the hand of Al Downing, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. By that time, Downing was a 13-year veteran who had made the All-Star team in 1967, and was one of only 13 players in the history of baseball at that time ever to strike out a side on only nine pitches, a feat he performed that same season.
But on April 8, he threw Aaron a pitch he described as a “sinker that didn’t sink,” and Aaron lifted it into the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen in left-center field.
Much has been made of the racism Aaron had to endure as he closed in on Ruth’s record. But the symmetry of an African-American hitter and pitcher having key roles in such an event was not lost on baseball fans.
Through the years, Aaron and Downing have been linked. Aaron, now 84, is an executive vice-president for the Braves. Downing, 76 worked in baseball radio after his career ended.
But the two men were reunited in 2014 by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The two men were presented with the group’s “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” award, given to players who are linked in history.
Aaron, true to form, was modest upon receiving the award:
“When Aaron was called to the podium to accept his award, he requested Downing to return to the spotlight so he could say: “I don’t think enough was said about this young man when he was up here before. He was a terrific pitcher.”
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!