My 40th high school reunion will be held in Atlanta this weekend. A friend of mine said we’d better go, because the 50th is kinda dicey. So I’m going. But the real event for me will be on Sunday, my first game at the soon-to-be abandoned Turner Field.
I’ve come to Atlanta with some regularity since The Ted was built, but my visits never coincided with a home series. And I’m looking forward to it, though the trip and the 40th reunion inevitably bring me back to the Braves of 1974.
Lots of people say they were there on April 8, and I’m one of them who happens to be telling the truth. My dad, not much of a baseball fan, took the whole family to see something historic. We sat on the first row well down the first base line. The two idiots patting Hank Aaron on the back were sitting next to me… I never noticed them until I saw that they weren’t there during the ceremony the game was stopped for.
But that game, one of the most famous in Braves history, isn’t what I remember best about 1974. What I remember was turning 18, being able to legally drink, and meeting at Atlanta Stadium (the Fulton County name addition was still a couple of years away) with my friends during that summer deciding what we wanted to do that evening. We wouldn’t even arrive together… we’d just agree to meet somewhere down the first base line and sit wherever. (Field Level seats were $4.50, about $20 in today’s currency.)
In 1974 the Braves drew 981,000 fans, averaging about 12,000 per game. And this was for a team that finished over .500. Next year the attendance would fall (in tandem with the Braves record) to an all-time Atlanta low of under 7,000 per game. So, with the exception of a few games like April 8th, nobody bought tickets in advance, or even together. You just met up and watched some baseball.
As attendance shrank, the Braves implemented a policy whereby you could bring your own beer into the park, so long as it was in plastic milk jugs. A half-gallon served about two. (MADD was founded in 1980.) When we left the game, we’d sometimes go to The Great Southeast Music Hall in Broadview Plaza where they sold beer by the bucket. Odd containers were a thing then.
Ted didn’t own the team yet. Bill Bartholomay (who’s still alive, by the way) did, and although that first team in 1966 was still my favorite, Aaron was still around, joined by Darrell Evans and Ralph Garr and, of course, the 8.0 WAR Phil Niekro in his prime.
Shortstop Craig Robinson played his only year as a starter in baseball: his 51 OPS+ pretty much guaranteed it would be his last. (This was a pretty good hitting year for him. His 6 year career OPS+ was an astonishing 43.) Looking back at the B-Ref numbers, 1974 was a pretty forgettable Braves season (April 8th aside) – the year after three guys hit 40 home runs and the last winning year before a string of really bad years. And we sure didn’t treat it as anything special at the time – just a thing to do on a hot summer night.
When the season began I was in high school, but I was in New Haven in college by the time Knucksie brought the season to a close with a meaningless 13-0 complete game over Cincinnati for his 20th win. Nobody knew it at the time, but that was Hank Aaron’s last game as an Atlanta Brave. He hit his 20th homer in that game, his worst HR output since his rookie season of 1954. It was also his worst OPS+ year since 1954 (128!) but still second-best on the team behind Ralph Garr.
So I’ve got reunion events on Friday and Saturday, which means Sunday is the only game I can attend. I bought my tickets in advance on this thing called the Internet. I’ll be there in this “new” stadium, watching a game in which you have to buy the beer they choose, instant replay holds up the proceedings, Pete Rose won’t be playing for the Reds, and the Braves don’t suck.
But the 18 year old me will be there too. I can’t wait.
(If the game is rained out, I blame this essay.)