This article was written by Stew Thornley
Movie theaters were showing Family Plot, the final movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in the spring of 1976. Another farewell was beginning in Milwaukee, where Hank Aaron played in his final Opening Day.
Following an abbreviated spring training caused by a management lockout, the Milwaukee Brewers had the honor of hosting the initial game in the American League. A crowd of nearly 45,000 came to County Stadium on a clear but cold day (temperature in the mid-40s). The fans were wired — and lubricated.
The Brewers, coming off a 68-94 season, had a new manager, Alex Grammas. Their opponents were the New York Yankees, a team that had hoped for more than the 83 wins they had in 1975 after acquiring Bobby Bonds and Jim “Catfish” Hunter. The Bonds era in New York lasted only a season as he was traded to the California Angels for a pair of players, including leadoff hitter Mickey Rivers, in December 1975. The same day the Yankees acquired second baseman Willie Randolph in a multiplayer deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Adding to the excitement was that baseball’s home-run king would be facing the game’s highest paid player, Hunter, who was on the mound for the Yankees. (Hunter had been declared a free agent in 1974 after Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley failed to make a payment on a contractual insurance annuity. Hunter then signed a five-year, $3.75 million contract with the Yankees that also included a $1 million signing bonus.)
The mound itself became a focal point in today’s game. New York manager Billy Martin claimed it was constructed incorrectly. “It is flat and doesn’t slope enough,” he said. “It’s like the pitchers are pitching uphill. I’m going to ask the umpires to measure it. If they don’t change it, I’m going to ask that my pitchers be allowed to warm up on the mound before the game to get used to it.”1
Hunter agreed that the mound was flat, which may or may not have contributed to his poor performance in the first two innings. With one out in the bottom of the first, Don Money doubled to left. Hunter then walked Scott and Darrell Porter to bring up Aaron. The fans came to their feet, and one in the upper-deck box seats showed his enthusiasm by informing those in the vicinity that, “If Hank hits one out, I’ll moon this whole crowd.”
The Hammer’s response wasn’t pants-dropping, but he did line a 3-and-2 pitch to left for a single to bring in the first two runs of the game. After an infield hit by Sixto Lexcano, Bill Sharp grounded to short; Jim Mason fumbled the ball as Porter scored for a 3-0 Milwaukee lead.
Hunter threw 51 pitches in the first inning (12 to Money) and went to a full count six times. He wasn’t much better in the second. A leadoff walk by Charlie Moore and a two-out double by Porter produced a run, and Aaron came through with another run-scoring single to make it 5-0.
After getting out of the second, Hunter settled down and allowed only two singles over the next five innings. Sparky Lyle pitched the eighth and gave up a leadoff walk to Aaron, who was removed to an ovation for pinch-runner Kurt Bevacqua, before Lyle retired the final three batters of the inning.
The damage done by the first 14 Brewers in the game was enough for Milwaukee right-hander Jim Slaton. Although Slaton also said the mound was flat, he overcame a single by Rivers to start the game and allowed only six other runners: two singles by Oscar Gamble, one by Mason, and walks to Roy White, Graig Nettles, and Randolph. Only once did the Yankees get two runners aboard in an inning — Gamble and Nettles with one out in the seventh — but Slaton got Randolph to ground into a force and Rick Dempsey to fly out.
The 5-0 Brewers win featured action in the stands. A brawl involving a large number of fans in the outfield bleachers provided a show during the middle of the game, and even the fans in the higher-brow seats had a run-in during the late innings as a pair of longhairs squared off with two more closely cropped men after one in the former group had hurled his beer over the railing of the upper deck onto the fans below.
As for the mound, the next day Martin revealed that he had protested the game. American League President Lee MacPhail had the umpiring crew check the mound. However, by the time the umpires got back to County Stadium the mound had been altered. With the evidence destroyed, the protest had no chance (not that it likely would have anyway), and the Milwaukee victory stood.2
There were no more Opening Days for Aaron. He retired as a player after the season and joined the Brewers’ front office.
This article appears in “From the Braves to the Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium” (SABR, 2016), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
Scorebook (with pitch counts) of the author, who was merely a witness and not a participant in the fights or the proposed moon sighting on this sunny day. The scorebook was compared with BaseballReference.com to ensure accuracy.
1 Murray Chass. “Aaron’s 2 Hits Help Beat Yanks, 5-0,” New York Times, April 9, 1976, 47.
2 “Yankees’ Protest of Hill Goes Flat,” New York Times, April 10, 1976, 18.