Hank Aaron, playing for the Atlanta Braves, broke the long-standing home run record of baseball legend Babe Ruth this week in 1974.
People hounded Hammering Hank, as he was known, for months after the 1973 baseball season. Aaron finished the season with 713 career home runs, one short of tying Ruth’s record of 714 lifetime home runs. Some praised Aaron for being a great baseball player. Some hated him for something other than baseball.
As the 1974 season began, Aaron’s shot at the record started in Cincinnati. The Braves opened the season playing the Cincinnati Reds in Ohio.
The Braves baseball team management wanted Aaron to break the record in Atlanta, so they were not going to allow him to play until he was back on his home field. The commissioner in charge of professional baseball, a man named Bowie Kuhn, to the Braves team that Aaron would have to play. In his very first at bat, Hammering Hank tied Ruth’s record, and he did it with the first swing of his bat. Crack! 714 home runs.
One more to break the record.
Back home in Atlanta, on April 8, 1974, Aaron stood at home plate in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In front of more than 50,000 fans and a national TV audience, Aaron caught enough of the pitch from the Dodgers’ Al Downing to lift the ball over the left field fence for home run number 715.
Hank Aaron would end his career with a total of 755 home runs. But getting to 715 was hard as he received death threats for years from people who were angry because Aaron, a black man, could break the record of an iconic white baseball player. The racial tensions were well publicized. But that crack of the bat on April 8, 1974, spoke louder than the racism that had filled the air. Two white fans dropped out of the stands and ran part of the way around the bases with Aaron, and Dodger announcer Vin Scully called the home run this way:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
Aaron’s career record of 755 home runs was broken by Barry Bonds in 2007.