It was 43 years ago today that Hank Aaron became baseball’s all-time home run king. Aaron awoke that morning perched atop baseball’s most coveted leader board; tied with the larger than life and most legendary sports figure in the world, George Herman Ruth. The world had been watching and waiting for months as all ears and eyes became focused on the bat in Aaron’s hands. It would be those hands and the flick of those wrists that would propel the game’s most talented yet unassuming men into immortality. For years, Aaron had been chasing the record with his particular brand of quiet excellence. Often in the shadow of the flashier talents of the era – players like Mantle, Mays, and Robinson.
Pitcher Claude Osteen once said of Aaron, “You have a better chance of slapping a live rattlesnake across the face and getting away with it than you do trying to fool Hank Aaron.”
Aaron could often be seen sitting on the bench in the dugout staring at the opposing pitcher through the tiny hole in his ball cap. This was his way of isolating his adversary and studying him.
He never saw a single one of his home runs clear the fence. Instead, Aaron kept his head down and focused on touching first base. Aaron once said, “watching the ball go over the fence isn’t going help.” It was this insurmountable focus and drive that helped Aaron to endure the challenges of chasing Ruth. Aaron told a reporter once, “I’m not sure who is chasing who these days. All I ever hear about is Ruth, Ruth, Ruth.” Aaron received a lot of fan mail as he made his way towards the top of the home run leader board – much of it racially motivated. Aaron received death threats from those who didn’t think a black man should ever hold the record. He was surrounded by security guards for much of the 1973 and ’74 seasons and on the road, he often booked several hotel rooms under his name as well as assumed names. Aaron was even forced to take up temporary living quarters in Atlanta because he was not safe in his own home.
Number 715 came on April 8, 1974 during the Atlanta Braves home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The evening was unusually cold for early spring in Georgia. It was a full-house at Atlanta Stadium with Los Angeles’ Al Downing on the mound; hoping to not become any part of history if he could help it.
It was the second inning when Aaron stepped into the batter’s box for the first time. Before walking to the on-deck circle, Aaron turned to Dusty Baker in the dugout and said, “Man, I’m going to go get this over with right now.” The anticipation from the crowd at hand and the rest of the world was immense. Downing dealt Aaron five pitches, none of which produced a swing, and walked Aaron. Aaron would score that inning, breaking Willie May’s National League record for runs scored.
In the fourth inning, with Darrell Evans on first base, no outs and the Dodgers leading, 3-1, a high fastball left Downing’s pitching hand and as quickly as it was delivered, Aaron turned on it and deposited into the left-center field bullpen. The time was 9:07 PM and coincidentally, that is also the EXACT time of this writing (weird!).
As Aaron rounded first base, the scoreboard flashed “715” in bright lights and the
stadium erupted into pandemonium along with a series of fireworks exploding overhead. As Aaron circled the bases, two fans who had made their way past security guards and joined him briefly between second and third. When Aaron rounded third, the sight of his teammates waiting for him at the plate gave the world a rare glimpse of emotion from the stoic Aaron as his intense focus broke into a wide grin. The glorious yet often painful journey was finally over.
Monte Irvin, who stood in for baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (who was in Cleveland attending a meeting of the Wahoo Club), congratulated Aaron. When Irvin mentioned Kuhn, the crowd booed relentlessly, showing their scorn that he was the one person who had chosen to ignore the evening.
“I just thank God it’s all over,” said Aaron. The incessant media interviews, near-constant scrutiny, death threats and hate mail could finally be moved aside.
Braves reliever Tom House, who caught No. 715 in the bullpen, raced to greet Aaron and present him the ball. The crowd roared for a full 10 minutes as Aaron was mobbed by teammates, relatives, friends and well-wishers. Aaron recalled the moment like this: “I don’t remember the noise or the two kids that I’m told ran the bases with me. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there, and her hugging me. That’s what I remember more than anything about the home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”
House likely had the best perspective on the scene: “I’ve got a master’s degree in marketing, and I don’t supposed my professors would give me high marks for opportunism, with so much being offered for the ball.” But I’m not at all sorry. What made it worthwhile was what I saw when running in with the ball in my glove. I ran so fast that my teammates joked that it was the fastest they had ever seen me run. I just wanted to get rid of it and get it into Henry’s hands. In the crowd at home plate, I found him looking over his mother’s shoulder, hugging her to him, and I suddenly saw what so many people have never been able to see in him – deep emotion… It looked like he had tears hanging on his eyelids. I could hardly believe it. ‘Hammer, here it is,’ I said. I put the ball in his hand and he said ‘Thanks kid.’ and touched me on the shoulder. I kept staring at him and it was then that it was home to me what this home run meant, not only to him, but to all of us.”
After the ceremony, play resumed and Aaron played the entire game, which the Braves won, 7-4.
Dusty Baker shared his humorous take as he stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the sixth. He noticed the crowd noise dying and the loud clanking of the gates in the bleachers. He stepped out of the box, looked around and saw that nearly everyone was leaving! “I realized then that they had just come to see Hank! Not me, not the Braves, but Hank and his pursuit of Ruth.”
As Baker stepped in, the phone in the dugout rang. It was for Hank. President Nixon had called to congratulate him on his achievement. Afterward, Aaron told hundreds of reporters, “The home run wouldn’t have really meant that much to me if we hadn’t won the game.”