Cincinnati Reds: Hank Aaron, police officer Clarence Williams share Opening Day legend

After Aaron tied Ruth's record, cop gave him ball

CINCINNATI - Forty years ago on Opening Day, Hank Aaron came to town with the Atlanta Braves sitting on 713 career home runs, one shy of the immortal Babe Ruth.

Up in the radio booth, Marty Brennaman was calling his first game as the new broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds.

Out in left field, standing between the outfield wall and the stadium seats, a young Cincinnati cop was about to play a role in baseball history.
 

There have been many greats moments on Opening Day here, but one day and one player stand far above the rest.

On April 4, 1974, Aaron rewrote the record book with his 714th home run, tying the cherished mark Ruth had set in 1927.

PHOTO GALLERY: Best and Worst Opening Days in Cincinnati

It was bound to happen, of course. A year earlier, Aaron hit 40 home runs. He ended 1973 one long ball away.

That meant there were six months to talk about it - six months of suffocating coverage

But then on a sun-kissed afternoon, before Cincinnati's largest Opening Day crowd to date, Aaron quickly delivered in the first inning off Jack Billingham.

Brennaman made the call:

Swung on, long shot into deep left field, Rose is back, and that ball is gone.

Reds fans clapped and cheered as Aaron ran the bases and his teammates mobbed him at home plate. One of the first to greet him was the Braves' on-deck hitter, Dusty Baker.

The game was stopped and Vice President Gerald Ford stepped onto on the field and congratulated Aaron, speaking into a microphone so everyone could hear:

"Good luck for 715 and a good many more," Ford said as he shook Aaron's hand.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Aaron a trophy and saluted him as "not only one of the greatest professionals who has ever played this game, but one of the greatest gentlemen who has."

A grateful and modest Aaron spoke a few telling words - short and bittersweet:

"Thank you very much, and I'm just glad it's almost over with."

Four days later, in Atlanta, it was. Aaron clubbed No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the record was his.

But what about the ball he hit in Cincinnati?

That's where Officer Clarence Williams III came in.

Shortly after Aaron slugged it, TV showed the 22-year-old policeman had it.

Then, there was another clip of umpire John McSherry running the ball to the Braves' dugout.

Riverfront Stadium had a double set of outfield walls – an inner home-run wall and an outer wall separating the field level from the seats - with a narrow, muddy gap between them.

Police stood in the muddy gap to keep fans from jumping over the outer wall to retrieve home run balls.

Williams, who had graduated from Purcell High School and the University of Cincinnati, had been on the Cincinnati police force for just nine months. He took the Opening Day detail because he wanted the overtime.

Aaron's home run ball ricocheted off the outer wall and landed at Williams' feet.

Williams wanted Aaron to have it.

Forty years later, Williams is still in law enforcement. He worked his way through law school in Cincinnati and became police chief in Riviera Beach, Fla.

Williams recently rediscovered memories about Aaron's home run ball and sent a package full of mementos to WCPO. It included:

> A photo copy of a newspaper picture with Aaron, his wife and Williams in the background.

> Several notes of congratulations;

> A city council resolution commending Williams for his "selfless attitude" in returning the ball;

> A picture of the autographed ball Aaron gave him in return;

> And this: Three years ago, when Williams was installed as president of the county police chiefs association, he got a letter of congratulations from Aaron.

 

The No. 715 ball is in the Braves' trophy case.

No. 714, the ball Aaron hit in Cincinnati, the one Williams retrieved, sits where Aaron promised it: on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

And did you know: After Aaron's three-run homer in the first inning, the Braves went ahead 6-1 in the fifth inning. But the Reds rallied back to win 7-6 in the 11th inning when Pete Rose scored from second on a wild pitch.

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Follow Opening Day With WCPO

WCPO will have extensive coverage of Opening Day. Live TV coverage begins at 4:30 a.m. Monday on Good Morning Tri-State. We'll also have live coverage of the parade starting on 9 On Your Side at noon and streaming live on WCPO.com.

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