Walter Banks was on hand that night 40 years ago, same as he has been on hand for every Braves home opener before and since. Then as now, he was the usher in the owner’s box. Bill Bartholomay, the man who’d brought the team south, was there, and so was Jimmy Carter, then Georgia’s governor. So were Hank Aaron’s mom and dad.
April 8, 1974: The biggest crowd ever to see baseball in Atlanta gathered for a game that moved NBC to pre-empt Monday night programming. (“The attendance was 53,775,” Banks said, ticking off the correct number from memory. Mr. B is amazing that way.) “They booed (Dodgers pitcher) Al Downing when he walked him in the first inning, but in the fourth — it was 9:07 p.m. — he hit the ball over Bill Buckner.”
Over the left fielder Buckner, over that wall in left-center, smack into the pocket of pitcher Tom House’s glove. (The Braves in the bullpen were on homer-retrieval alert.) And, not incidentally, smack into history. “There’s a new home-run champion of all time,” Braves announcer Milo Hamilton shouted into his microphone, “and it’s Henry Aaron!”
But you knew all this stuff already. You knew about Hammerin’ Hank and No. 715 because that Monday night thrust the Braves, eight years after their arrival from Milwaukee, into the national consciousness. “It was just magic,” Banks said, speaking before Tuesday night’s home opener, which began with a salute to Aaron and his 715th.
Then this: “I remember thinking (in 1974) that we didn’t have any history like the Yankees or the Dodgers. But look at what’s happened since.”
For a franchise that has been in town less than half a century, the Braves have made their share of memories. Few of those came before April 8, 1974. (To be fair, not many came in the years directly after, either.) The 1969 team won the National League West in a five-way chase, but was swept in the NLCS by the Miracle Mets. The ’82 Braves under new manager Joe Torre started 13-0 — prompting The Atlanta Journal headline: “Torre! Torre! Torre!” — and outlasted the Dodgers on the final weekend, but were swept in the playoffs by St. Louis.
Then they fired Torre and hired Eddie Haas and it got bad again. Then the ’90s arrived and the Braves began stacking miracle finishes and division titles like Legos. Over the past 23 seasons we’ve had Francisco Cabrera swinging and Sid Bream sliding and David Justice making Tom Glavine a one-hit Game 6 winner and Otis Nixon climbing the wall to thwart Andy Van Slyke — that was in a regular-season game that became a 13th consecutive victory in the summer of ’92 — and Jason Heyward driving a Carlos Zambrano pitch 471 majestic feet on the first swing of his big-league career.
All of that happened here, in or across the street from the ballpark Hank Aaron made famous. Even now, this isn’t a franchise with the blue-blood pedigree of the Yankees and Dodgers, but the Braves have made us — and the watching world — pay attention. This isn’t Cleveland. These aren’t the Cubs. You cannot follow baseball and dismiss the Braves.
Two Braves pitchers and a manager will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer. Another pitcher and a third baseman will be similarly honored soon. The Braves spent the offseason — that part of it not given to Tommy John surgery — locking up prized young talent. This is a team that has averaged 92.5 wins over the past four seasons and, even without Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, should break 90 again. This is a strong franchise that might be moving Outside The Perimeter, but won’t be going away anytime soon.
The Braves have given us many moments over their 48 seasons here. The first mammoth moment came 40 years ago. Asked to rate the wonders he has seen over more than 3,800 games on the job, Banks didn’t deliberate. He merely pointed to the end of a row of field-level pews.
“Every aisle seat has the image of Hank Aaron on it,” he said. “The ball he hit for No. 715 is on the back of the scoreboard. This stadium address is 755 (Aaron’s career homer count) Hank Aaron Drive. That’s No. 1.”
Chipper Jones was a great Brave. Glavine and Greg Maddux and John Smoltz were great Braves. Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel are becoming great Braves. But the greatest Brave was the 80-year-old who needed a walker to approach the podium Tuesday, and who then said in a clear voice: “I just want to say thank you for all the kindness over these many years.”
Henry Louis Aaron. The man who put Atlanta sports on the map.