April 1974. The eyes of the baseball world were focused on two men: Henry Aaron, who stood on the porch of his sport's most sacred record (Babe Ruth's 714 career homeruns) and Reginald Martinez Jackson, the last American Leaguer to win Most Valuable Player honors in both the regular season and World Series.
Miles apart in character; Aaron was soft-spoken, Jackson never met a microphone he didn't like. His two favorite topics seemed to be hitting a baseball a long way, and himself. He once said, "After Jackie Robinson, the most important black in baseball history is Reggie Jackson, I really mean that." See, even Reggie forgot about Hank. Meanwhile, some of the right fielder's own teammates wished he would tone it down a notch. Noted fellow Hall-of-Famer, Jim "Catfish" Hunter: "Reggie would give you the shirt off his back. Of course, he'd call a press conference to announce it." And this from relief specialist Darold Knowles: "There's not enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog."
As Aaron closed in on the record, the attention that followed Jackson ultimately found him, though most of it was the unwanted variety. Chasing down the Mighty Babe did not come without consequence as the Alabama-born slugger was besieged by an avalanche of racial-toned hate mail. Jackson knew a thing or two about animosity himself, having received death threats during the previous season's playoffs and World Series. From his book, "Reggie: A Season with a Superstar" (a must read for any A's fan, young and old):
"At first I felt like a star, but then I felt afraid. After all, a kook can do this. And he said he'd snipe me from the stands if I played."
Today at seemingly every click of the remote we see baseball's most visible stars talk about the pressures of keeping up with the Joneses, and the decisions they've made to remain in that upper echelon. All of which must be laughable to Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson, who on the surface faced similar pressures, but behind the scenes were being asked- in not so polite terms- to forfeit the very thing they loved the most. Yet they didn't just play, they performed at the highest level, a testament not only to their immense talent, but to their will.
The first week of the 1974 season was met with anticipation- and controversy. Having clubbed forty homeruns the year before, Aaron finished the season with 713 career long balls. With the Atlanta Braves beginning the '74 campaign in Cincinnati for a three-game set, the quiet superstar considered sitting out the series, which would almost guarantee he'd set the record at home. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened, as he often did (mostly when it came to A's owner Charlie Finley), and Aaron would ultimately play in two of the games.
On his first swing of the new season, the Hammer connected off of Jack Billingham for a three-run homer that brought him even with the Babe. Four days later before a packed house at Atlanta Stadium, Henry Louis Aaron hit the most significant homerun of my young life. So I did what most six-year olds do (I was actually thirteen days shy of my seventh birthday). I ran across the street to where my classmate Sherri King lived (over the years I would watch countless A's games with her father), and she and I went pounding on neighbors' doors to tell anyone who cared to listen that the Sultan of Swat's record had been broken.
For Aaron, who had played his first game almost exactly twenty years before his Big Moment, Number 715 marked the culmination of a long and arduous journey, or as Sports Illustrated called it, the "End of the Glorious Ordeal".
While the new Homerun King grabbed the headlines- and rightfully so- Reggie Jackson had himself quite a first week. In the opener at Texas, the self-proclaimed "best in baseball" homered and went 4-for-5. Two games he later he hit a pair of long balls and drove in seven runs. Before the first month of the season was in the books, Jackson would have two more multi-tater games (tater being Reggie's word for homerun). After a particular power display against the Rangers, he discussed the joys of going deep.
"There's no feeling like hitting a home run to win a game," he said. "It's better than making love." Jackson was challenged on the point. "If you hit home runs like that," he retorted, "you can get all the love you want."
Reggie didn't hit one out on my seventh birthday but he was still a hit with me.
I received an autograph book from Mom and I knew I wouldn't be happy until Number 9 had signed it. To top it off, the World Champions were in town that April afternoon and Dad had one more surprise in store for his youngest son: first deck tickets at the Coliseum. Afterwards, we'd see about getting some signatures for my book. As I waited anxiously for Reggie to make his grand entrance into the parking lot following the game, my cousin Paul and I tracked down some of the other players on the A's and the visiting California Angels. (Back in those days, you could just walk right up to the players- almost as if they were real people!) But little did I know how tough this autograph business was. We approached a young Bobby Valentine, who was signing amid a modest crowd of kids. Seeing me decked out in my brand new green and gold A's cap, Bobby V. decided to have a little fun. "Oh, I don't sign for A's fans", he said to me. Demoralized, I began to walk away when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Valentine. "Hey", he said, beaming, "I was just horsing around!" And he signed. I should have told him to screw off. There are just some things you don't do to a kid on his seventh birthday.
I don't remember what other ball players left their signatures in my book that day, because truth is, I didn't keep any of the autographs I collected. Except one. A crowd of youngsters waited by Reggie's black Grand Prix, hoping to get a glimpse of the reigning MVP. I wasn't taking any chances. Book in hand, I camped out in front of the driver side door of Reggie's car. Which Mr. Jackson took great exception to. "Away from the car", his voice boomed, even louder than the sound of my heart pounding through my A's shirt. I remained steady, not budging from my spot. Or maybe I was so petrified that I couldn't move, but I certainly wasn't going to tell Reggie that. That is, if my mouth were able to actually form words. He stood over me and asked, in a not so gentle tone, if I had heard him correctly. I replied with my best deer-caught-in-the-headlights pose. Surely Reg was in no mood for this, having seen the bullpen blow an eighth-inning lead. He looked around for some possible help, maybe a family member that this seemingly deaf and dumb kid belonged to. Bad enough that I had completely sucked the last ounce of patience from Reggie Jackson, but I could feel the weight of one hundred eyes staring at me. It was then that Dad saved the day. "Tell him what you want." Reggie turned back to me. Nothing. Then to my father, again. "Does he talk?" Now the old man was laughing. "Yeah, he talks. Today's his birthday and he wants your autograph." Reg wasn't satisfied with my Dad's request; he wanted to hear me say it. I mumbled, in what surely sounded to him like a different language, that it was indeed my birthday and I wanted him to sign my book. Reggie took it from my trembling hands and wrote, "Happy B'Day Don. Reggie Jackson". And then he proceeded to tell me, a little more calmly this time, to get away from his vehicle. Able to move finally, I managed to peel myself away from his car. Reggie signed a few more autographs (for those that actually stuck around), then he climbed into that black Grand Prix with the "MVP ‘73" plates and was gone.
Reggie was gone alright, as in way ahead of the pack. Following another two-tater game against Milwaukee on June 2, 1974, Jackson's numbers read like this: .399/.470/.759. (It would turn out to be the peak of his season in all three categories). He also led the league in homeruns (15), runs-batted-in (42), and his mighty swing adorned the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine.
Alas, a locker room brawl with centerfielder Billy North on June 5 brought Jackson down to live with the mere mortals. (Catcher Ray Fosse, in trying to play the peacemaker, got the worst of it; a herniated disc for his noble deed). A monster year, and perhaps a second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award may have been lost that day in the clubhouse, where Reggie injured his shoulder. Even his pre-season goal of joining the 30-30 club was in jeopardy, though he felt he was still in reach as late as September 5 of that 1974 season:
"I got a hit, drove in a run, and stole another base. I only need ten more now."
Reggie fell short on both accounts (29 homeruns, 25 stolen bases) but his A's didn't; World Series champions for the third straight year. Meanwhile Hank Aaron's season ended the way it began, with a homerun against the Cincinnati Reds, the 733rd of his career.
Maybe you can make a strong case against baseball players being heroes (though you would have had a tough time convincing me otherwise 35 years ago). But the manner in which Reggie Jackson and Henry Aaron performed during the 1974 season, often under extreme (if not downright despicable) conditions, was every bit of heroic.