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  • Writer's pictureGrant McAuley

Tom House, the man who caught Hank Aaron's historic 715th home run

Monday marked 50 years since Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron broke what many considered to be one of baseball’s unbreakable records. His 715th career home run was the culmination of a pursuit that saw Aaron surpass a baseball legend on his way to reaching icon status.

On April 8, 1974, in front of a crowd of 53,775 at what was then called Atlanta Stadium, Aaron connected for a two-run blast off Los Angeles Dodgers starter Al Downing. That baseball sailed over the left center field wall and landed squarely in the waiting glove of Braves relief pitcher Tom House.

The amiable House, Aaron’s teammate for four seasons, wanted nothing more than to deliver that piece of history to the man who made it — the man he called “Hammer.” What he ended up getting was far more than a brush with greatness.

“It’s actually scripted like a movie,” House said of the record-breaking night. “You couldn’t have plotted it out and had it end any better.”

Aaron tied the record four days earlier on Opening Day, with a three-run shot against Jack Billingham of the Reds in his very first at-bat of the season on opening day in Cincinnati. Aaron’s former teammate Eddie Mathews was now Atlanta’s manager and intended to sit Aaron for the remainder of the series, but was ordered to play him in the finale by then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Still sitting on 714 after a hitless game that Sunday against the Reds, Aaron and the Braves traveled to play their first home games of the season with history in the offing that fateful Monday.

Braves fans were ready to see it.

“When we came back into Atlanta, my biggest take initially was the amount of people in the stands,” House said. “You know, there were rabid baseball fans in the Atlanta area and at that time the rabid baseball fans that came every night were 10-15,000 people. Now, all of a sudden, there’s 55,000. So, the intensity was dialed up. The feel of the crowd, in other words, it was peaking at the right time at the right place for a historic event.”

The stage was set and the Braves bullpen, located behind the outfield wall in left center field, was one of many potential landing spots for an Aaron home run. As such, the Atlanta relievers plotted out their own areas to secure and retrieve the baseball for Aaron.

Like any fan who bought an outfield ticket that night, House and the rest of the Braves relievers were ready to make the catch should they be so lucky.

Mathews penciled Aaron into his customary cleanup spot in the order against the Dodgers that night. After receiving a thunderous ovation when he came to bat for the first time in the second inning, Aaron walked and scored against Downing.

History had to wait until the fourth inning. With the Braves trailing, 3-1, Aaron came to bat with a runner on base. He made the stoic stride to home plate with yet another ovation from the Atlanta crowd and stepped into the box, moments away 715.

Aaron belted Downing’s 1-0 pitch over the wall in left center and began to circle the bases as the crowd erupted in enthusiastic approval. Out in the Braves bullpen, it was House who was on the receiving end of the historic blast.

“I’d like to say that it was fully remembered and fully thought out and fully explained, (but) it wasn’t,” House said. “Everybody talks about a great catch, but if I would have stood still, it would have hit me right in the forehead. I remember catching the ball, then this big fishnet shot right behind me and out of the corner of my eye I saw Bill Buckner. He tried to climb the fence to catch it. Then I don’t remember anything else after that until all of a sudden I’m putting the ball in Henry’s face at home plate.”

That begs the question, what does one even say at a moment like that?

“I think when I ran in and gave him the ball, and it’s a little fuzzy because there was so much excitement, but I think I said, ‘Here it is Hammer,’” House said of presenting the baseball to Aaron.

With House racing in from the bullpen, he witnessed a moment that extended beyond baseball.

“When I got there, I kind of wiggled through the crowd, because it was pretty crowded,” House recalled of greeting Aaron, who by that time was surrounded by teammates, photographers, media, family, friends, fans and even complete strangers who all wanted to share in the moment. “I got to him just as he was hugging his mother and she was hugging him. There were tears in his eyes and tears in her eyes. I do remember thinking this is like a LifeSavers commercial.”

Their embrace struck a chord for House far more resonant than Aaron’s home run itself or even the baseball history it represented. It was the culmination of an incredible accomplishment, one that weighed heavily on the man who broke the home run record that night.

“I also know, after 50 years in the game, that I’ve never seen an athlete turn around on TV and say, ‘Hi, dad.’ We say, ‘Hi, mom,’” House said. “So, I knew intuitively that this was a special moment. But more than just a special moment for baseball, it was a special moment in his life and the release of whatever emotions he was holding inside of himself.”

The emotions were many, but Aaron acknowledged that night that he was glad it was over. Seeing Aaron share that moment of celebration with his mother, Estella, touched House in an unexpected way, one that transcended the game.

“Here he was at a point in time with his mom and a feat that at that time had never been done before,” House said. “From my perspective, being a small part of a huge moment like that, it kind of defined my career and I think actually helped me focus on a purpose bigger than just statistics when it came to baseball.”

The events of that night left an indelible mark on House, who would go on to become a well-respected pitching coach and work with some of the biggest names in both MLB and the NFL to improve their throwing mechanics in the decades that followed.

What he experienced that night in Atlanta was a deep connection to the game, one seldom afforded to those unable to reach the stratosphere of Aaron’s accomplishments. It all comes flooding back each time House watches the highlights and relives that moment in time.

“What I felt, I felt the crowd,” House said. “You know, there’s a difference between hearing a crowd and feeling a crowd. Then, for a brief moment, whatever the feelings and the electricity of the moment with his mom and himself, I got a brief glimpse of what it was all about. I still, whenever I see it on TV or whatever, I’ll stop no matter what I’m doing and I get the same warm, fuzzy (feeling) every time.”


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