By Alyse Shorland, CNN
(CNN) - The night of April 8, 1974, Braves outfielder Hank Aaron hit home-run number 715, broke the record held by the legendary Babe Ruth and became, at that time, the home-run leader in baseball.
But two other men were enshrined in history with him – Clifford Courtenay and Britt Gaston. They were students, just 17 at the time. They leaped from their seats and bounded onto the field and ran to third base with Aaron. Images from the game show them circling the field together.
Clifford Courtenay is now Dr. Courtenay. He’s 55, an optometrist in Valdosta, Georgia. Courtenay’s life wasn’t changed by that home run almost 38 years ago. At the time, he says, he and Gaston didn’t really understand that the moment was bigger than baseball - Aaron was an MVP, All-Star and long-time Braves player, but he'd come to the Major League from the American Negro League, and still received death threats from fans who didn't want to see a black man break the Babe's record. In the moment, many weren't sure how to interpret the actions of the young white men on the field.
The guys running the bases with him were “dumb 17 year olds," Courtenay said.
Over time, Courtenay came to resent the photo as it followed him to school in Memphis, to Tucson and back to Georgia. Reporters would call him at all hours of the night and ask him the same questions, over and over.
“It wasn’t like I felt what it was like being a celebrity, but it was what it would be like to be in the fishbowl and what it would be like to be in the spotlight,” he said.
When a CNN reporter called him this time, something was different.
“I never looked at the photo, but I do think about it now. I think about it more than I used to. I used to get annoyed with it because how much can you say about it? But I guess I have a little softer spot now for it now.”
That soft spot for Courtenay appeared last year, when his fellow bandit base-runner, Gaston, passed away on September 3.
Courtenay and Gaston had kept in touch - they had met with Aaron on several occasions to speak with reporters and sign baseballs - but Courtenay says they led separate lives. That changed two years ago when Gaston became ill. They reconnected, Courtenay said, and spoke regularly about life, and also about Gaston’s battles with cancer.
“Seeing him and his deterioration was sad and it makes me think, ‘We had this public moment and it will always be there.’ It’s hard to express,” Courtenay said.
What was once an annoyance is now a fond remembrance of a man whom Courtenay might not have otherwise been connected with.
“Britt was a bold, charismatic, bright individual who was a little bit reckless and a bit stubborn but he was one of those people, whether you liked him or not, you couldn’t not like him," Courtenay said. "Some people just have a magnetism about them. He was that kind of guy.”
Last year, Courtenay and Gaston got together with Aaron for another meeting, where they signed baseballs for charity - the three men scribbling on baseballs to serve as mementos for others.
This year, as a gift, Courtenay wanted to give Gaston the one thing he didn’t have in his life: Courtenay and Aaron signed a baseball together and gave it to Gaston.
I think this is a great story... the way Britt & Cliff ran the bases with Hank Aaron. Everytime I would see a photo or maybe a clip it would just make me smile... I even share it with my kids...the excitment of knowing these guy from this little small town in Georgia. Now everytime my kids see it...they yell hey Mom look it's those guys from Waycross.
These days this wouldn't be seen as a prank or something occasioned by the excitement of the moment. It'd be treated like a criminal breach of the peace and these guys would be in jail facing prosecution. There would be no "Dr." Courtenay, as no medical school would take someone with a record and such a demonstrated lack of maturity and judgment. And you can bet that MLB would not support the signing of baseballs, etc., memorializing the event - unless, of course, their percentage were big enough to make them forget the grave insult to "the game".
Thank god it was pre- 9 11. A sniper probably would have taken them both out.
I can't help but think this home run wouldn't be as memorable if it weren't for these two kids. Can anyone remember Barry Bonds record breaking homerun? How about Pete Roses' record breaking hit? No on both counts?
In a way, Courtenay Gaston running around the bases with Aaron created something that everyone remembers. Had they not done that, none of us would remember it.
This was not a scene stealing moment. Anyone with 2 brain cells to rub together can see that. It was innocent excitement
Is Courtenay the one wearing blue or red?
I think it was a hoot. Nothing funnier than teenage boys.
Hank Aaron worked hard for that moment and achievement, and here you have these two jerks run onto the field trying to steal the spotlight from his accomplishment. What did they do to deserve to be in the limelight? I think it was totally classless.
That's why 17 year olds can't vote. Undeveloped brains.
The rush to go out onto the field and run with Hank Aaron was selfish and impulsive. It seems like they truly regretted the decision that took some of the light from Hank Aaron and placed it on them. But Mr. Aaron seems to have forgiven them, and he is the person who should be most outraged. I think it is a testament to Mr. Aaron's forgiveness and perhaps many of these people who comment angrily should take Mr. Aaron's example and forgive people for their mistakes and learn to hate less.
hilarious, black man struggles and succeeds against all odds and somehow has to share the lime light with 2 white kids that broke the law. some things will never change.
oh, i wish you would not look at it that way. the other way to look at it is that 2 white kids from the South was embracing their hero – who was black. If that event happended in 1950, the two white kids would have been killed by rednecks for supporting a black man. thus, one way to look at the photo is how far some whites from the south has come to embrace black heroes. I hope you can look at it that way.
Magnus, thanks for the perspective, unfortunately I thought of it the same exact way phelonius stated it.
Thanks for the positive spin!
That's exactly what I was thinking.
Well maybe on this subject change is good. They took Aaron's moment and turned it into something about them. Aaron worked his whole career to achieve this goal, and these two kids stole his moment. What did they do in life that gave them the right to be on that field at that moment.
They were 17. They did something impulsive. It doesn't sound like Mr. Aaron begrudged them this impetuous act.
They did not steal Aaron's moment. They displayed a fan's enthusiasm not only for the man but for the sport. These guys along with Aaron understood this and benefitted together as a result. Aaron was not about Aaron but about the game he loved and enjoyed. Society attached all the other crap, including your comment. Enjoy your day, while the rest of us recognize the simple fact of one man setting a record which current players hold as a benchmark for their careers, and something to one day break or exceed.
Like dirkk said, they were 17. Who hasn't been a bonehead at least once when they were 17? Once is probably an understatement.
I agree!!! I've been saying it for years... Kids should not be allowed at baseball games!
Aaron didn't work his 'entire career' to set the record, that's ridiculous. He wanted to win and get paid a lot doing it, and he was very successful.
@Kevin – it's people like the father-son combo that attacked the on-field 3rd base coach for Kansas City, completely unprovoked at a White Sox game a few years back that is probably a cause for the law to get involved.
yes that was one of the ugliest things i have seen. the judge blamed the Royals for serving beer at the game. backwards. i hope the father-son combo live a misfortunate life full of ill and despair to wipe the snug look of their faces for thinking they won.
The Royals weren't serving anything at the game since it was idiot White Sox fans in Chicago who attacked the coach.
Not to nitpick since it was such a horrific incident but Tom Gamboa was the Royals' first base coach, not third base.
Funny how times have changed. This harmless stunt by 17-year-old excited kids, would be even more memorable for them if done today. They would have the attorney fees, probation costs, jail time and the criminal record to follow them for the rest of their lives, instead of the notoriety and somewhat celebrity status these guys have had. I would have to say, I don't think we've really advanced at all. In fact, we've gone backwards.
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