Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron did the unthinkable 40 years ago today when the slugger hit his historic 715th home run on April 8, 1974. This took Aaron past the immortal Babe Ruth as the home run king.
The Civil rights Act of 1964 was a decade old and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. That did not stop people from sending hate mail and death threats to Aaron. Many people, whether they were fans of baseball or not did not want a African-American to break the Babe’s 39-year old record. It was fine to break the record, just not Aaron or any other black player should ever break it.
The road to the record started for Aaron long before he put on a uniform. As a young child growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron saw hate toward his family from the segregation in the south and from a large Ku Klux Klan presence. Many times the youngster would be in the street playing ball when Aaron’s mother would call him into the house to hide under the bed with the rest of the family. The Klan would march by, burn a cross in the yard, and then move on. That was not going to stop Aaron.
Before Hank Aaron made the historic march past Ruth’s home run record 40 years ago, his future was molded by his hero. The young hitter heard his idol Jackie Robinson speak at a Mobile drugstore. Hearing Robinson, the first African-American player to integrate Major League Baseball (MLB) shaped the future for Aaron. After a short stint in the Negro Leagues, Aaron headed to the Milwaukee Braves. It was 1954 and even though MLB was integrated, there were still objections to anyone other than whites playing in the big leagues.
Aaron had rocks thrown at him and for the first few years in the majors had to deal with segregation both on the road and even from his own team. In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta and Aaron decided to win the fans over with home runs. And the chase began. As Aaron came closer and closer to Ruth’s record, more and more threats came in. At one point a death threat came in that said that Aaron would be shot in Atlanta. Aaron told his teammates not to sit close to him on the bench, just to be safe. Nothing happened, but the threats and chasing the record was becoming a distraction.
Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs. With the first swing of the 1974 season, Aaron tied Ruth with 714 home runs. This was a road game for the Braves and Aaron did not hit another home run until the team made it home to Atlanta. The record came to Aaron in his second at bat of the home opener. With Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter looking on, Aaron sent the ball over the head of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner and the chase was over. Hank Aaron was the home run king.
The historic home run from Hank Aaron may have been 40 years ago, but the record was only part of it. The new home run king suffered a lot of abuse on his way to the record, and Aaron rose above it all. Breaking Ruth’s record was another step toward equality for everyone, no matter what race they were. Aaron, who would end his career with 755 home runs, and hold on to the record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007, had one thing on his mind after crossing the plate for the record-breaking home run. He was glad it was over.
Commentary by Carl Auer