It was forty years ago today that a black man named Henry “Hank” Aaron broke the most prolific record in baseball, that was held by the most heralded and legendary baseball player of all time.
On April 8th, 1974 in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, “Hammerin” Hank deposited a pitch from Al Downing into the Braves bullpen to break Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 Home Runs. The record breaking blast also signified the breaking of the white Ruth’s record by the black Aaron. Keep in mind that this came (not only) 27 years after Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the colour barrier, but also just 10 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the United States.
Unlike the insults and harassment that Roger Maris experienced while he pursued the Babe’s single season HR record of 60 in 1961, the insults and threats that were hurled at Aaron were racially charged and of pure hate. Having ended the 1973 season sitting on 713, Aaron was forced to spend the entire winter subjected to hate mail and death threats. Aaron had even stated at the end the last game of the 1973 season that his only fear was “that he might not live to see the 1974 season.”
Aaron would indeed survive the offseason and entered the season looking to both tie and surpass Ruth’s records. With the Braves slated to open the season on the road in Cincinnati, the Braves owners were worried that Aaron would hit both home runs while he was on the road. There solution: bench him for the opening series. MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and ruled that Aaron had to appear in at least two of the games. The Braves had good reason to want to sit Aaron as he tied Ruth’s record with his first swing of the season. Luckily for the Braves and their fans, HR #714 would be the only one he hit in the opening series.
With the Braves and Aaron returning home to Atlanta, the stage was set for history. With a capacity crowd of 53 775 in attendance and the game being televised nationally on NBC, Aaron would deposit an off-speed pitch into the bullpen in the 4th inning. The legendary Vin Scully would poetically say of the record breaking slam:
“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 would be joined along his journey around the bases by two young college students who wanted to congratulate him. Aaron momentarily thought they had other intentions…
When asked after the game about what he thought about the chase and breaking of the record, Aaron coolly responded:
“Thank god that’s over.”
Aaron’s career record of 755 Home Runs would stand as the all-time record until it was broken by Barry Bonds in 2007. The debate of whether or not the “chemically enhanced” Bonds is the new home run king is one that is on going and does not look to be over anytime soon.