LAS VEGAS — My introduction to Hank Aaron was one of those happy accidents.
In March 1973, I had reported for duty at The Associated Press office in Cincinnati, after working at four Montana newspapers — in Terry, Miles City, Helena and Billings — the previous decade.
Eight months earlier I had left a dream job — sports editor of the Billings Gazette. After five-plus years at the Gazette, I spent 2½ months traveling across Europe by train on $5 a day (that’s a lot of glorious cheese sandwiches). It was the adventure of a lifetime and when it was over, I wanted more. I had hoped to join The AP when I got back to Montana. From there, I was ready to go wherever the wind — and opportunity– took me.
On the way back to Montana, the train was a couple hours out of New York City when it stopped in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I noticed on a map the route crossed the upper tier of Ohio.
I knew one person in Ohio. In 1969, I had invited Bill Winter, former sports editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and his wife to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner in Billings. A year or so later, Winter joined The AP and I watched with envy as his byline showed up on sports stories in Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, where he ran the operation.
When the train stopped in Lima, Ohio, I Impulsively threw my backpack over my shoulders and got off in a December snowstorm. I hitchhiked my way to Cincinnati to spend a couple days with a friend whose career was taking off. I was so broke Winter loaned me $20, and probably figured he’d never see the 20 bucks, or me, again.
A month later I was designing page one for the Helena Independent-Record when my life took an abrupt change of course. AP-Seattle offered me a job in Pullman, Washington. A day or so later, an offer came from AP’s top executive in the Midwest. It was Winter’s boss and he had me at “How would you like to cover the Cincinnati Reds?” Winter had a job open up and he knew I was available.
Off to Cincinnati I went and three weeks later, I was covering the Reds-San Francisco Giants season opener at Riverfront Stadium. On the mound: future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal vs the Reds’ young lefty Don Gullett. Three years earlier he broke into the big leagues at the age of 19 and, at the age of 20, won 16 games.
Two weeks later, New York Sports called with an assignment: Hank Aaron, who needed 41 home runs in 1973 to tie Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs, was off to one of his worst starts. He had four hits in his first 12 games. With so much attention on whether he could catch Ruth, his early-season struggles — one hit in 38 at-bats at one point — were raising eyebrows.
I reached Aaron at the Cincinnati Netherland Hotel, hoping to get a five-minute telephone interview that night. I didn’t expect to get an invitation for an in-person interview. When he opened the hotel room door, he apologized. He was finishing a telephone call with his girlfriend, Billye. He held up a bottle of red wine and offered me a glass. I respectfully declined. I had a busy shift ahead of me. Years later, I looked back with deep regret at the missed opportunity to have a glass of wine with one of baseball’s greatest sluggers — and nice guys.
He was down to earth, thoughtful and accommodating. At 39, his back was bothering him but he wasn’t concerned about his slow start or the pressure to overtake Ruth.
He was “staying in baseball simply to do a job I love — regardless of any record,” he said. “Baseball is my life and I want to stay in it. And when I can’t do the job, I’ll quit.”
Soon, he was back in the groove and finished the season with 40 homers — his eighth 40-homer season — and a .311 batting in 120 games. A home run in the second-to-last game of the season off Houston’s Jerry Reuss left him one shy of Ruth’s record.
With the Braves scheduled to open the 1974 season in Cincinnati, it wasn’t long before the Great Debate surfaced: Would Braves management hold Aaron out of the lineup so the historic home runs could take place in Atlanta?
After much uproar, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened and ruled Aaron had to play two of the three games in Cincinnati.
Against that dramatic backdrop, AND tornado sightings the day before the game, I was The AP’s lead writer when the season opener started.
I wasn’t just dealing with the most intense pressure in my life. I felt nauseous and my stomach was swirling. It wasn’t from stress. I had a raging case of hay fever.
Before heading for Riverfront Stadium, I took an allergy pill. Minutes before the game started I felt nauseous and my stomach was swirling. No, no, no.
With Aaron standing in the on-deck circle, I bolted for the men’s room. The allergy pill, I later discovered, was well past its expiration date. I was sick as a dog. I saw my career expiring if I missed the history-making homer.
Sweating profusely, I stumbled back to my press box seat and to my great relief, Aaron was stepping into the batter’s box against Jack Billingham.
After taking three pitches in a row — all balls — Aaron drove the ball over the left center field fence for No. 714.
For a one-eyed kid from a small Montana town, who caught a big break, it was a surreal sight to behold. An epic piece of history I nearly missed.
Aaron died on Friday. He was 86. RIP.