Sunday, May 09, 2010

Hammerin' 715 (1974)

This is part 1 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Most people who possess the long-standing love of baseball that I do—especially those who write about it—have fond and vivid memories of their first trip to a major league ballpark. It just so happens that I don't, which is not to say I have bad memories of my first game. It's just that I don't remember.

My father doesn't seem to recall either, but my best educated guess is that it was during the 1973 season, as evidenced by an artifact I dug out of my personal archives (see photo below). If it wasn't 1973, then my first game was at Shea, because the Yankees played their home games there during the 1974 and 1975 seasons, while Yankee Stadium was being renovated.

1973 Yankees Scorecard & Official Program
There are some things I do remember about those formative years, though. 1974 was the year that I became a legitimate baseball fan. That is, it was the season I became a fan of the Yankees. I know it was 1974 because that's the year baseball cards of players who'd been traded in the off-season had a thick yellow horizontal banner across the bottom of their picture with the word TRADED written across it. I remember this because I'd envisioned that my 1974 baseball card would say " the New York Yankees".

Of course, I'm not trying to say that becoming a Yankees fan is evidence of my conversion to a true baseball fan. However, prior to that I considered my favorite team to be the Pirates. Why? Because I was six years old and I wanted to be one. That's not exactly a legitimate reason to be a fan of a particular team, in my book, although one of my best friends in college was a guy from Long Island who was a fan of the New York Giants, New York Rangers, New York Knicks and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Why the Pirates? I think he said it was because he liked their uniform colors as a kid, but it could have been for the same reason as my own admission. Another theory is that he had a desire to be different, as evidenced by the fact that he was from Long Island and wasn’t a fan of the Islanders. Actually, I believe that most Long Islanders—especially at that point in time—were fans of the Mets and Jets as well, particularly because they played their games at Shea, and it was easier for them to get to Queens than the Bronx.

One more thing I remember from those days was April 8, 1974. My family was visiting my grandparents—my mother's parents—in Clearwater, Florida. It was our year to head down to Florida, as we alternated years with my mother's younger sister's family, visiting them every other Easter vacation. I believe this was our second-to-last trip down there. My grandmother died in August of 1976 and my grandfather subsequently moved back north to be closer to his son (my Uncle Carl), his three daughters (my mom and my Aunts Dolores and Louise), and his ten grandchildren.

We were watching the Braves-Dodgers game on television. Whether Florida was considered an extension of Braves' territory or it was a Monday Night Baseball broadcast, I don't know, because I'm pretty certain this was prior to TBS's superstation days. On opening day, just four days prior, Hank Aaron had belted home run number 714, tying Babe Ruth for the all-time record.

I was pretty much rooting against Aaron breaking the all-time home run mark. After all, I was a Yankees fan for the better part of a week, and didn't want anyone to overtake the immortal Babe. Actually, I had much more of a sense of who Babe Ruth was, and what his place was in baseball history, than you would expect from someone my age. This leads me to believe that I didn't just become a Yankees fan at the start of the 1974 season. More likely, the seed had already been sown during 1973, partly as a result of my first trip to Yankee Stadium, but also because I realized that rooting for the same team as my dad should far outweigh my desire be Captain Hook's sidekick.

In the fourth inning, Hammerin’ Hank drove an Al Downing offering into the bullpen in left-center field. I watched as Dodgers left-fielder Bill Buckner tried in vain to climb the wall in an attempt to keep the ball in the park. Then, a handful of fans poured onto the field, apparently to simply congratulate Aaron as he circled the bases, eventually to be greeted by his teammates—and some guy in a white trench coat and white pants—at home plate.

It’s a scene that I still recall vividly today, right down to picturing the layout of my grandparents’ living room as we watched the game. It’s a pretty special memory, and quite historically significant at that. I’d say I’m pretty lucky that it’s my first lasting baseball memory.

Next: The Revolutionary War (1977)

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