In 1974 when I was 22 years old, I was working for $95 a week at WSPB, which was an Atlanta Braves-affiliated AM radio station in Sarasota, Florida. Fresh out of Northwestern University, I was the news director at the station and my main bread and butter was to handle updates during the morning and afternoon drive times.
Sarasota in 1974 was a city of 46,459 people, the 73rd-largest market in the country and sixth-largest in Florida, according to Arbitron Ratings. To supplement my meager salary, I was a bartender at Big Daddy's on St. Armand's Circle and a sailing instructor at nearby Lido Beach.
I was a big sports fan, and I had been closely monitoring Hank Aaron's home run totals since I was a kid playing on the sandlot adjacent to the Foundry and Machine Company in Batavia, Illinois. Hitting tennis balls above the second-story windows became the passion for our "home run derbies" between Steve Peterson ("Peat Moss"), Greg Bradley, John Clark, Jim Freedlund, the Hubbard twins (Dan and Don), the Myer brothers (Stan and Steve), Greg Willard and myself.
Twisting our right foot a couple of times to dig our heels in the dirt or rotating our fingers continually on the barrel of the bat, we mimicked the great home run hitters of our generation: Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves and Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs. The end of the 1962 season when I was 11 years old found Banks with an edge over Aaron in career home runs, 335-298.
Aaron and Banks were our home run idols, but in our wildest imagination we couldn't fathom either one—or anyone else for that matter—ever approaching the unreachable record of 714 home runs set by the legendary Babe Ruth on May 25, 1935. Who could ever top that mark? You would have to hit 35 home runs a year for 20 years and you'd still be 14 short. How many players last 20 years in the majors, let alone hit 35 home runs in each of those years?
It was impossible; it would never happen. So we thought.
Banks retired during the 1971 season with 512 home runs, while Aaron kept hammerin' home run after home run, no doubt helped by the altitude of Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, which at more than 1,000 feet above sea level was the highest park in the major leagues at the time. Although near 40 years old, Aaron was enjoying a very productive stretch of his career, and in the 1973 season he finished with 40 home runs, putting him at 713 for his career.
He was one swing away from the unthinkable...and that's all it took.
Aaron equaled Ruth's record on Opening Day, April 4, 1974, in Cincinnati, hitting a homer off a 3-1 pitch from the Reds' Jack Billingham. The Braves then wanted to "rest" Aaron so he could break the record at home. However, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn had other ideas and required the Braves to play Aaron at least once more in their three-game set in Cincy. Hank played the series finale, going 0-for-3. So the stage was set for him to break Ruth's record in Atlanta on the next day: Monday, the 8th of April, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I desperately felt the urge and need to be in Atlanta at the stadium for the record-breaker. I had a couple of issues, though. My boss at the station, Cliff Lansen, told me I would be fired if I was not back in time for my shift on Tuesday.
But that was only one of my problems. It was expected to be cold and rainy in Atlanta, and there was talk the game would be postponed. Finally, even if I made it up to Fulton County Stadium and the weather was perfect, I would still need the 40-year-old Aaron to hit the big one on that day.
Back in the early '70s, there were two airlines that flew puddle jumpers from the Sarasota-Bradenton airport to Atlanta: National and Eastern, neither of which exists today. Eastern had a flight that could get me into Atlanta in time for the Monday game after my afternoon drive-time shift, and it also had an early-bird special 5 a.m. flight Tuesday morning that could get me back to Sarasota for morning drive.
The game was so big that NBC Sports carried it live nationally, which was unheard of in those days. The legendary Curt Gowdy was at the mic. An extra press box had been constructed along the right-field line to help seat the more than 300 reporters. The photographers were located on the first-base side because Hank was a right-handed pull hitter, and if he was going to hit it out, chances were it would be to left field or left center. Many of the writers were high up in the press box behind home plate. I had a last-minute credential, which left me with one place where I could stand, and that was in the third-base photographers' well.
Before the game started, as I got into the stadium, I made it a practice to introduce myself to a bunch of people around home plate. I brought my own tape recorder and did interviews with Hank's parents, Herbert and Estella; his first manager, Charlie Grimm; Braves chairman Bill Bartholomay; entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey; as well as Aaron himself. He told me, "I just want to thank all my friends for being here. I'm just hoping this thing will get over with tonight."
I recorded my own rudimentary play-by-play as the game was going on. Hank came up in the second inning and watched the Dodgers' Al Downing throw five pitches, drawing a base on balls. Aaron came up for the second time in the fourth inning. There was one on, a 1-0 count...the crowd of 53,775 people was on its feet cheering, and then...
The pitch was released by Al Downing, the bat was swung by Hank Aaron, and the stillness of the cool night air was shattered by a crackling explosion that reversed the field and launched the ball over the left-centerfield fence for home run No. 715. Hank Aaron had become baseball's all-time home run king!
Feeling the magnitude of the moment, I RAN OUT ONTO THE FIELD without thinking and met Aaron as he rounded the bases between third base and home. (Editor's note: Sager enters the picture in his trench coat at the one-minute mark of the video below.)
I captured history with recordings from his breathless teammate Tom House ("Here's the ball, Henry, here's the ball"), his crying mother ("I knew he'd do it...ohhhh...I knew he'd do it") and an emotionally spent Aaron ("Thank you...thank you...thank you...I just thank God it's all over").
Once the official ceremony to honor the accomplishment had taken place, I was standing next to Aaron, still recording as he answered questions. The TV people were yelling at me to get out of the shot because when they cut to Hank I was right there with him!
Shortly after the game resumed, the telephone rang in the dugout, President Richard M. Nixon wanted to congratulate Aaron on the historic mark, but he was told Aaron could not come to the phone right then because he was playing in the outfield. Between innings, when Aaron was able to return the call, he told the president, "It was a long struggle, but I finally made it."
After the ceremony, the game resumed and I eventually went back to my hotel. This was in the days before cell phones and social media. I got up the next morning and made my 5 a.m. flight back to Sarasota and morning drive time. When I arrived, there was bedlam. The station aired my play-by-play and the interviews, and the station manager, Lansen, of course took all the credit for putting me on "assignment" in Atlanta.
Even better was the reaction I got from people like my sister Candy, who was watching at a local pizzeria, and my Northwestern buddies, who were among the more than 35 million watching on television.
That summer I went to the MLB All-Star Game in Pittsburgh and met up with Hank with the express purpose of giving him a copy of the tape with my call, but most importantly the interviews as well. At first Aaron thought I was seeking an autograph, and he showed little interest in listening.
But then the historic moment and unique surroundings came back to him, and he blurted out, "You're the kid with the trench coat and tape recorder." And after listening to the tapes for the first time, he said they should be sent to the Hall of Fame, which is where they are now, 41 years later. In return for the tapes, I was given a lifetime pass to Cooperstown. I had made the Hall of Fame at age 22!