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For the 50th anniversary of Mobile native Hank Aaron milestone, a new video appears

FILE - Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home run, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta, Ga., Monday night, April 8, 1974. Just in time for the 50-year anniversary of Hank Aaron's record 715th home run, Charlie Russo is making available video he shot of the homer.(AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)
Bob Daugherty/AP
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AP
FILE - Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home run, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta, Ga., Monday night, April 8, 1974. Just in time for the 50-year anniversary of Hank Aaron's record 715th home run, Charlie Russo is making available video he shot of the homer.(AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

It was fifty years ago today that Mobile native Hank Aaron hit his record breaking 715th home run, which surpassed Yankees’ legend Babe Ruth. Atlanta Braves fan Charlie Russo was there to watch “hammerin’ Hank” do it. He had an unbelievable view of Aaron's historic hit, and a half century later, he's ready to share it with the world.

The 81-year-old Russo is releasing his long-private footage of the moment Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record on April 8, 1974, which he captured after surreptitiously following Aaron's family onto the field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He was right there celebrating at home plate with Aaron, his family and teammates — including Dusty Baker, who was on deck for the Atlanta Braves when Aaron connected.

"Was that guy filming?" Baker asked when told about the video made available to The Associated Press by Russo and his family. "Come on! I've never seen that!"

Russo's video shows Aaron — standing just feet away — raising his right arm and smiling to the cheering crowd.

"Everything just fell into place," Russo said. "I mean, just everything we did was just, you know, magical."

Russo says he and his uncle, Joseph Mathews, obtained the coveted tickets before making the drive from Savannah. The game was a sellout, with a crowd of 53,775. Russo recalls that finding the tickets was just the start of a charmed day.

Russo was filming from seats behind the third-base dugout when Aaron's drive cleared the wall in left-center in his second at-bat. He then walked closer to where he had seen Aaron's family and entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey seated. When Aaron's mother, father and others made their way toward the field, Russo followed.

"They open the gate and they go," Russo said. "So I go in the field, too. I mean, it's just like 'OK, I'm part of the family.'"

Russo's shots — filmed with an 8 mm camera — show him getting closer and closer to Aaron, until suddenly Aaron is grinning inches away from his lens. He also got a close-up moment with Davis, who had promised $25,000 to whoever caught the home run. Footage from other cameras shows Russo, in a brown leather jacket, standing directly behind Aaron while the Hall of Famer waved to someone in the stands.

It was remarkable access given the security concerns around Aaron at the time. Aaron received numerous death threats as he approached Ruth's record, the target of racism as a Black man set to pass a white player whose mark was set while the sport was segregated. Despite extra security, Russo — who is white — said he was never questioned.

"Nobody says anything," he said. "Well, all the attention is on Aaron, you know?"

Former Braves media relations director Bob Hope says a popular rumor was that police snipers were in place atop the stadium due to security concerns. Hope says that wasn't true, but when told about Russo's story, he acknowledged security should have been more stringent.

Russo wasn't the only unauthorized visitor on the field. Two 17-year-old fans, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, barged onto the diamond and joined Aaron as he ran around the bases.

"I mean, I don't know how the security wasn't tighter than it was," Hope said. "It definitely should have been. ... I mean, the two kids run around the bases. Oh my gosh, if there were snipers, they would would have gotten them for sure."

While filming, Russo looked down to see the rosin bag and weighted donut used by Braves hitters in the on-deck circle. Russo reached down and placed the items in his jacket.

"I was just down there and, you know, I think everything just sort of fell into place," Russo said. "OK, this is the rosin bag and a donut. Oh, my Lord. And I put them in my pocket."

Aaron visited Savannah a few months later and gave Russo a signature, which was placed in a frame with the rosin bag, donut and Sports Illustrated cover showing the record homer. Russo now wants to pass along the rosin bag and donut, perhaps for auction.

Russo said Aaron was not upset to learn Russo had the items from the on-deck circle.

"He was nice as he could be," Russo said. "Came in and autographed them. ... I mean, his demeanor is just 'Oh, man, that's beautiful.' And, I mean, he's fine. And he signed them, 'Best wishes, Hank Aaron.'"

Aaron finished his Hall of Fame career with 755 homers, a record broken by Barry Bonds in 2007.

The Braves plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary at Truist Park next week. Baker, who retired as Houston Astros manager after last season, plans to attend, along with Tom House, the relief pitcher who caught the homer in the Braves bullpen. Baker and Hope were the only non-family pallbearers at Aaron's funeral following his death at 86 in 2021.

Russo said being so close to one of the most famous homers in baseball history was not his first brush with a memorable game. He said he jumped over Sanford Stadium's hedges to walk onto the field after Georgia's young coach, Vince Dooley, beat Alabama's Bear Bryant in 1965.

He also has a framed photo of himself standing beside Pete Maravich in the Louisiana State locker room after Maravich scored 58 points in a double-overtime win at Georgia in 1969.

"Maybe it's my demeanor that, you know, it's an occasion," Russo said. "And when you do these things, you've got to go ahead and do them. You can't sit and think about them."

Russo isn't one to just sit. He still works six-day weeks at the fish market founded by his father in 1946. He says he wouldn't hesitate if he had another opportunity to leave the stands for an up-close view of history.

"Yes," he said. "If the event called for it, yes I would."

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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