Forty years ago today ...
Richard Nixon was still president, though less than four months away from being forced to resign ...
South Vietnam, 2½ months after Nixon proclaimed "peace with honor," was still two years away from being conquered by North Vietnam ...
Charleston's Charles "Pug" Ravenel (distant cousin of Arthur and Thomas) was still building momentum toward winning the S.C. Democratic gubernatorial primary and runoff that summer. But two months after that victory, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that he didn't meet residency requirements.
Mount Pleasant's James B. Edwards was still gaining ground of his own toward a Republican gubernatorial primary victory over retired Gen. William Westmoreland. Edwards then defeated 3rd District U.S. Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn in the general election to become our state's first GOP governor in 98 years ...
Palmer Gaillard was still Charleston's mayor ....
But on April 8, 1974, lots of folks around here, including me, were much less interested in such supposedly significant stuff than we were in Hank Aaron's quest to become baseball's home run king.
And when Aaron attained that throne by hitting No. 715 four decades ago tonight to break his tie with Babe Ruth, this then-20-year-old Braves fan cheered long and loudly.
My whoops and hollers weren't part of the in-person celebratory din at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Instead, they echoed around my not-so-swank bachelor pad on East Bay Street. That not-so-sharp image, from my 12-inch, black-and-white Zenith, of Aaron hitting one over the left-field fence in the fourth against lefty Al Downing of the dreaded Los Angeles Dodgers, then rounding the bases with two happy fans joining him near third base, is forever etched in my mind's eye.
That cinder-block apartment cost me a mere $90 a month - and it was south of Calhoun. Renting downtown was much cheaper then.
So was baseball talent: The Braves paid Aaron $220,000 in 1974. Sports Illustrated reports that 51 current big-leaguers have long-term contracts for at least $100 million.
Factoring in inflation, Aaron's $220,000 rises to $1.1 million in 2014. Today's average big-league salary is nearly $4 million.
My ticket for a seat behind the third-base dugout was a mere $6.50 on Saturday night, Sept. 29, 1973, when Aaron hit No. 713, a three-run blast off Houston's Jerry Reuss, in the Braves' 7-0 victory over the Astros. The next afternoon, more than 40,000, including me, sat through a steady rain to see baseball history.
Only it wasn't the history we had in mind. Instead of watching Aaron hit 714 (and maybe 715), we watched Leo "The Lip" Durocher, Ruth's former New York Yankee teammate, manage his 3,717th - and final - major-league game, a 5-3 Houston triumph.
We also saw Aaron somehow hit three singles in four at-bats - despite Durocher's orders to Houston pitchers Dave Roberts and Don Wilson to not give him anything to hit. After all, Durocher's entitled his memoir "Nice Guys Finish Last."
Aaron then had to endure a six-month wait - and many more ugly letters - before getting his next shot at tying the record, which he did off Jack Billingham on April 4, 1974 in Cincinnati.
Even further back:
An April 29, 1966, the Braves played their seventh game in Atlanta - and my first as a spectator there. Aaron's gloriously swift, compact, powerful swing ended that game with none on and two out in the ninth: No. 405, hit off Carroll Sembera, beat the Astros, 4-3.
That one went over the left-field fence, too.
Trivia tester: What South Carolina native was that 1966 game's winning pitcher? (Answer at column's end.)
The bad old days
At age 18 in 1952, Aaron helped the Indianapolis Clowns win the 1952 Negro Leagues World Series.
At age 19 in 1953, the Mobile, Ala., native endured racist taunts while having to routinely eat and sleep separately from white teammates as the first black player for the South Atlantic League's Jacksonville Braves.
At age 39 and 40 in 1973 and 1974, he got bigotry-stained hate mail - and death threats - while closing in on that epic record held by Ruth, aka "The Bambino," aka "The Sultan of Swat."
And at age 80 tonight, Aaron's No. 715 will be honored before the Braves' home opener against the lowly New York Mets.
See, times can change for the better - and frequently do.
In 2007, a steroid-era sham who shall not be named here did best Aaron's grand final total of 755.
Yet we real fans know that "Hammerin' Hank" is still the real home run champ.
And it's still one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ballgame.
Trivia answer: Billy O'Dell, a lefty from Whitmire who pitched for Clemson before signing as a "bonus baby" with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is email@example.com.
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