Close was Close Enough: A 1973 Baseball Tale

A Tale of ’73: Yep, those are three treasures from the 1973 Topps set along the top row, in various states of brilliance and/or decay. They and the brochure/program thingy wrapped around them in an L-shape tell a story. Well, of course they do.

It’s partly a New York Mets story but it’s mostly a Henry Aaron and Tony Grillo story. In 1973 Henry gave furious chase to Babe Ruth’s career home run record. And what a season he had: 40 home runs in less than 400 at bats at the ripe old (for baseball) age of 39.

Tired of the hate mail and threats from rednecks, and fueled by his own internal flame (and, I like to think, those of us who were rooting hard for him), he doggedly pursued the Babe, finishing the season on a tear, with six hits in his final seven at bats of the season, lifting his season batting average to .301 and OBP to .402.

He hit his 40th dinger of the year and 713th of his career to move one behind the Babe in the Braves’ penultimate game of the season, a Saturday win over the visiting Houston Astros. That left one more chance to catch Ruth in 1973, and my father (Tony) and I were there, about 25 rows up along the first base side on the final Sunday of the season.

This was a special event, as evidenced by the brochure thingy stadium personnel were giving away that day. When you folded it out (as pictured), you could see every home run that Aaron had hit in his career to that point, including who the pitcher was, the inning, how many runners were on base. A pretty cool keepsake, which I’ve kept.

Henry didn’t disappoint, getting three singles his first three times up. In the bottom of the eighth he came up for the last time that season. Dad and I and thousands of others stood on our feet ands got hoarse screaming for Henry to hit one out. Alas, he hit a rainmaker that Houston second baseman Tommy Helms squeezed for the final out of the inning. With the Braves losing, knowing this was most likely his last time at bat for the season, we gave Henry a long, well-deserved ovation. I still feel the chills.

Fast forward a few weeks. The Mets, the team I liked second best, after the Braves (we are from New York, after all) were playing the Oakland A’s in the World Series. I’d placed a few bets on the Mets at middle school (probably a quarter here and there). But mostly, I’d been bragging loudly about how the Mets were going to beat the A’s. Of course, they did not, and the 13-year-old me was crushed.

I was facing taunts and teases the next day at school, after the Mets went down. I was really depressed. Dad knew this, but he had to head out of town early on a business trip, so he left me a note (which I’ve also kept) on the kitchen table. Basically it said to keep my head high and laugh it off, that it was just important to know how to lose with class as it is to win.

Dad reminded me of how difficult it had been for Aaron that season, what with all the white supremacist nut jobs giving him hell. And my father wrote one line that I’ll never forget: “Remember the ovation Hank Aaron got when he didn’t get the 714th – I’ll bet it wouldn’t have been any better if he did.”

That note, especially that one line conjuring the memory of a great slugger falling just short after a valiant effort, got me through the day. It’s gotten me through many other days since then.

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