Downing, too, seemed unaware that he was soon to be a party to history. "I will pitch to Aaron no differently tonight," said he, as the band massed in right field. "I'll mix my pitches up, move the locations. If I make a mistake, it's no disgrace. I don't think the pitcher should take the glory for No. 715. He won't deserve any accolades. I think people will remember the pitcher who throws the last one he ever hits, not the 715th."
Downing's "mistake" was made with nobody out in the fourth inning and with Darrell Evans, the man preceding Aaron in the Braves' batting order, on first base following an error by Dodger Shortstop Bill Russell. Downing had walked Aaron leading off the second inning to the accompaniment of continuous booing by the multitudes. Aaron then scored on a Dodger error, the run breaking Willie Mays' alltime National League record for runs scored (after the home run, Aaron had 2,064).
This time, with a man on base, Downing elected to confront him mano-a-mano. His first pitch, however, hit the dirt in front of the plate. The next hit the turf beyond the fence in left field.
"It was a fastball down the middle of the upper part of the plate," Downing lamented afterward. "I was trying to get it down to him, but I didn't. He's a great hitter. When he picks his pitch, he's pretty certain that's the pitch he's looking for. Chances are he's gonna hit it pretty good. When he did hit it, I didn't think it was going out because I was watching Wynn and Buckner. But the ball just kept carrying and carrying."
It was Aaron's first swing of the game—and perhaps the most significant in the history of baseball. It was also typical of Aaron's sense of economy. On Opening Day in Cincinnati, against the Reds' Jack Billingham, he tied Ruth with his first swing of the new season. But this event, noteworthy though it may have been, was merely a prelude, and Aaron recognized it as such.
"Seven-fourteen only ties the record," he advised well-wishers at the time. And in yet another ceremony at home plate, he reminded everyone, "It's almost over."
Aaron's innate dignity had been jarred in that opening three-game series by the seemingly irresolvable haggling between his employers Bartholomay and Manager Eddie Mathews, and Commissioner Kuhn. Bartholomay and Mathews had hoped to keep Aaron out of the lineup for the entire series so that he might entertain the home fans with his immortal swats. When Kuhn suggested forcefully that it was the obligation of every team to put its best lineup on the field at all times and that any violation of this obligation would be regarded by him as sinful, Mathews and Bartholomay relented—but only partially. After Aaron tied the Babe, Mathews announced that he would bench him for the remaining games of the Reds' series, saving him for the adoring home folks.
This brought an iron rebuke from the commissioner: Aaron would play or Mathews and the Braves must face "serious consequences." This message was delivered after the Saturday game, in which Aaron did not play. Aaron was in the lineup for 6� innings on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding weakly to third in three at bats. The stage—and a stage it seemed—was set for Monday night.
It rained in Atlanta during the day, violently on occasion, but it was warm and cloudy by game time. It began raining again just before Aaron's first inconsequential time at bat, as if Ruth's phantom were up there puncturing the drifting clouds. Brightly colored umbrellas sprouted throughout the ball park, a brilliant display that seemed to be merely part of the show. The rain had subsided by Aaron's next time up, the air filled now only with tension. Henry wasted little time relieving that tension. It is his way. Throughout his long career Aaron had been faulted for lacking a sense of drama, for failing to rise to critical occasions, as Mays, say, or Ted Williams had. He quietly endured such spurious criticism, then in two memorable games dispelled it for all time. And yet, after it was over, he was Henry Aaron again.
"Right now," he said without a trace of irony, "it feels like just another home run. I felt all along if I got a strike I could hit it out. I just wanted to touch all the bases on this one."