Al Downing today
Henry Aaron hits #715.
Downing watches Aaron run out his record-breaking HR.
Milo Hamilton today
Cliff Courtenay and Britt Gaston congratulate Aaron as he rounds the bases.
Tom House gives Aaron the ball.
Dr. Cliff Courtenay holds ball autographed by him, Aaron, and Britt Gaston
The pressure didn't faze Al Downing. The marching bands that crowded the bullpen before the game and prevented Downing from getting a normal warmup didn't, either. The intermittent rain and pregame ceremonies? No big deal. Downing had debuted in the majors with the Yankees in July 1961, so after living through 2 1/2 months of delirium surrounding Roger Maris's chase of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, he was ready for this challenge too. (He has always suspected that Dodgers manager Walter Alston chose him to start Aaron's potential record-setting game for exactly that reason.)
So when Downing walked Aaron in the first inning, that wasn't nerves. And when he left a fastball a little up in the fourth, that was just baseball. "I was not overwhelmed at all," he says. "He was the greatest home run hitter of all time. You're more upset if it happened with a guy who was not a good hitter."
Aaron's 715th wasn't a defining moment for Downing, who was pulled from the game two batters later. He didn't even stay until the end of the game, and he gave only one interview that night, to George Plimpton, who strolled into the clubhouse and shared a cab back to the hotel with the pitcher.
Downing has embraced his role in history, attending dinners and other events honoring the moment. He's retired now, after nearly three decades as a broadcaster, mostly for the Dodgers.
Downing knows that for some, his 17-year All-Star career has been reduced to a trivia question. But he doesn't regret being the one who gave up number 715, and he was dismayed to hear pitchers express a desire to walk Barry Bonds rather than be linked with him forever when Bonds broke Aaron's record in 2007.
"If you don't want to give up home runs," Downing says, "don't pitch."
The Radio Announcer
Outside the den of Milo Hamilton's condo in Houston is the highlight of the 86-year-old sportscaster's collection: the Hank Aaron wall. Hamilton has both his scorecards, home and away, from the night of April 8, 1974; the framed article from that week's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED; a two-foot TV advertisement from the time featuring Aaron; and a photograph of Hamilton throwing his fist in the air as Aaron circled the bases.
Hamilton had all winter to plan what he'd say, but he let himself be spontaneous - with one exception: "I made a mental note not to say, 'Holy Toledo,'" which was Hamilton's catchphrase. "It was his day, not mine."
As it turned out, Aaron's will-it-get-out line drive left no room for a canned call. "I was a lucky son of a gun to be there and be the announcer," Hamilton says.
Tom House vividly recalls feeling that Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run was going to drill him in the forehead if he didn't get his glove up. And he remembers presenting the ball to Aaron with a simple, "Here it is, Hammer." But the seconds in between, when he ran the ball from the bullpen to home plate? "I have no clue how I got there," he says. "The guys told me afterward that it was the fastest I'd ever run."
An average pitcher (29-23, 3.79 ERA) who appeared in 289 games over parts of eight seasons with the Braves, Red Sox and Mariners, House reached the apex of his career on April 8, 1974. Catching Aaron's hit got him onto a Trivial Pursuit card and, he recalls, into at least one third-grade reading handbook.
The Party Crasher
Cliff Courtenay gets bored easily. Always has. But it wasn't boredom so much as bravado that led him to charge the field as a 17-year-old high school senior. He and his best friend, Britt Gaston, were on a college visit to Georgia, and Gaston's family got them tickets to the game. The friends were aware that Aaron had a chance to break the record that night but not so eager to see it happen that they got there on time.
"I think they made some announcements [like], If there's any funny business, people are going to jail," Courtenay says. "We must have missed those." When Aaron made contact, they leaped over the tarp and onto the field even before they realized the ball was gone. "That would've been embarrassing if it'd hit the wall," he says.
They caught up with Aaron as he rounded second and then headed for the leftfield stands. Quickly apprehended, they were taken to a stadium holding cell, charged with unlawfully interfering with the occupation of another and then transferred to an Atlanta jail. (Gaston and Courtenay were released the next morning with a warning to stay out of trouble for six months.)
Courtenay still seems bewildered by the attention he receives. Now an optometrist, he rarely volunteers information about his role that day; his wife, Lynn, didn't learn of it until they'd been dating for months and Courtenay's mother, Ruth, let it slip at dinner one night. But his parents bring it up. He's introduced as "that kid" at dinner parties, and a line once formed around him at a charity golf event.