The 1974 Major League Baseball season began much like most others had in recent years with one exception, as Atlanta Braves slugger Hammerin’ Hank Aaron stood at the precipice of eclipsing one of the game’s greatest records, Babe Ruth’s record 714 career home runs, which stood for 53 years. The humble and unassuming Aaron went about his business day-in and day-out for the previous 20 seasons while almost quietly averaging 36 home runs per season during that span. Having spent his entire career to-date with the Braves organization, he had already paced the organization in most of the franchise’s offensive categories, and now he prepared an assault on one of baseball’s most hallowed records and one that most baseball enthusiasts felt might never be broken.
Babe Ruth became Major League Baseball’s home king on July 18, 1921 when he knocked his 139th career home run off Detroit Tigers pitcher Bert Cole. Each one that followed set a new mark and Ruth retired in 1935 with 714, a seemingly insurmountable total. No one even came close to approaching that total other than Aaron and Willie Mays, who retired in 1973 with 660 dingers, while Hank sat on 713 at the season’s end. Hank Aaron knocked his 713th home run in the second to last game of the 1973 season and failed to connect in the season finale. Sadly, as the slugger neared the Bambino’s record, he had to endure unparalleled racism, death threats as well as threats to his family. Not since Jackie Robinson’s emergence in 1947 had there been such a despicable amount of hatred pointed at one man. When asked as the season concluded how he felt about topping Ruth, Aaron candidly responded that his only fear was that he might not live to see the 1974 season. The Atlanta Journal even quietly prepared his obituary in the off chance that someone might carry out on the numerous death threats. He did receive his share of well wishers also including Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire Hodgson, who proclaimed that The Babe would have been front and center to cheer on the pursuit of his record.
With the Braves 1974 season opening in Cincinnati, management hoped to sit the slugger through the series so that he could break the record at home, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in a required that they play Aaron at least two games of their three-game set with the Reds. With his first swing of the regular season, Aaron hit a three-run home run off Jack Billingham in game one of the series to tie Ruth, and returned to Atlanta for their home opener neck-and-neck with The Babe. After a 45-minute pregame celebration honoring Aaron and typical home opener fervor in front of a Braves record 53,775 fans, which included Hank’s father throwing out the first pitch, Aaron and the Braves prepared to face the Los Angeles Dodgers and starting pitcher Al Downing. Downing walked Aaron on five pitches in the bottom of the second and pelted with a barraged of boos from the capacity crowd. However, in the bottom of the fourth, with the Dodgers leading 3-1, Downing grooved a high fastball that Aaron deposited into the Atlanta bullpen, and more specifically reliever Tom house’s glove. As Aaron rounded the bases, almost floated around the diamond, two exuberant fans met him at second base following him to third and patting him on the back. Hank Aaron, the humble champion, rounded third and cracked a rare smile at the sight of his awaiting teammates. The entire team shook Hank’s hand and Tom House sprinted in from the outfield bullpen to offer, "Hammer, here it is!" presenting Aaron with his historic relic.
Following his historic round-tripper, which included congratulatory handshakes from the Dodger players as he rounded the bases, Aaron was treated to a 10-minute standing ovation. Monte Irvin, representing the Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office, congratulated Aaron as boos rained down on him when mentioning Kuhn who was absent for the historic night. After all was said and done, Aaron stated, "I just thank God it’s all over with." He would later lament that the due to the threats that he was deprived of some of the things that he should have been able to celebrate with his family, referring to his two boys were unable to attend, fearing the worst might occur. What fell to mere footnote status was the fact that after walking in the second and then scoring on a Dusty Baker double, he passed Willie Mays as the all-time leader in runs scored. Aaron finished the season with 20 home runs while also toppling the career RBI record late in the season. He would played three more season with Atlanta and the Milwaukee Brewers, the city where he began his career and played in a record-tying 24th MLB All-Star Game held in Milwaukee, where he appeared in his first in 1954. Hank Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs and entered the national Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron (February 5, 1934-) established himself early in his career as one of the greatest power hitters in baseball. Aaron had humble beginnings near Mobile, Alabama, but found that sport offered a way out of the cotton fields – which, by the way, helped to build up the strength in his hands for his powerful and effortless swing. Henry’s focus as a teenager seemed to lean more towards sport that his studies and his skill on the baseball diamond allowed him to abandon school for greener pastures like the Negro Leagues. His performance as a member of the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears earned him a spot on the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. It has been estimated that Aaron hit .366 with five home runs and 33 RBI in 26 Negro League games before catching the eye of two Major League franchises, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. "…the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars." The Boston Braves signed Aaron as a free agent in 1952, and he was shipped to the Eau Claire Bears of the Northern League. To that point, Aaron batted cross-handed (as a right-handed batter, his left hand was placed above his right on the bat), but once in the Braves organization deserted the unorthodox grip and excelled as he scored 89 runs, had 116 hits, nine home runs and batted .336 to earn the Northern League Rookie of the Year award.
In 1953, Henry was promoted to the Jacksonville Braves of the South Atlantic League and he once again proceeded to tear up pitching as he led the league in batting average (.362), runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (125) and total Bases (338). After leading the Braves to the South Atlantic League championship, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. He then played winter ball in Puerto Rico, where manager Mickey Owen helped improve his hitting even further by adjusting his stance allowing Henry to hit to all fields rather than only left and center, to which he was accustomed. At the Braves 1954 spring training, Aaron made it very difficult for management to keep him off the roster and when left fielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle, Henry took over in left for the newly relocated Milwaukee Braves. Aaron, renamed as Hank by a local sport reporter to make him seem more approachable, was added to a lineup that already included future Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Mathews and All-Stars Del Crandell, Joe Adcock, Johnny Logan and Andy Pafko, among may others. In his second year, 1955, Hank led the National League in doubles (37), notched 27 home runs and 106 RBI, and earned his first of 21 All-Star Game selections. (He would appear in a record 25 All-Star Games over the course of his 23-year career.) This was his first of 20 consecutive seasons that Aaron eclipsed the 20-home run mark, a streak that also saw him amass 30 or more in fifteen seasons which included 40 or more eight times.
In 1956, he won his first of two National League batting titles with a .328 average earning him third place in NL MVP voting – a position he would hold six times in his career. Hank earned top ten MVP consideration 13 times including winning the 1957 NL MVP award. That season, Hank missed capturing the coveted and elusive Triple Crown as he finished third in batting average (.322) – 29 point less than St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial – while leading the NL in home runs (44) and RBI (132) as well as runs (118) and total bases (340). In 1958, Aaron won his first of three straight Gold Glove awards. Hank Aaron led the NL in hits and batting average (1956, 1959) twice, three times in runs scored, four times in doubles, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage and eight times in total bases. Despite never hitting over 50 home runs in a single season, Aaron’s blasts cleared the outfield walls consistently throughout his 23 Major League seasons (1954-1976), eclipsing the 40-mark eight times. Hammerin’ Hank hit for power, crushing 755 home runs, but he also hit for a career average of .305, had 3,771 hits and drove in more runs than any other player in baseball history with 2,297 at the time of his retirement.
While averaging 36 home runs each year from 1954 to 1973, Aaron was on the inevitable path to potentially top one of baseball’s most heralded marks – Babe Ruth’s career 714 home runs. At the conclusion of the 1973 season, Aaron sat on 713 career home runs and, sadly, endured an off-season wrought with racism, hate mail and even death threats at the notion that he, a black man, might top Ruth’s mark. But, still not finished at the age of 39, Aaron tied The Babe on his first swing of the 1974 season off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Billingham in Cincinnati. Then, on April 8, 1974, in front of a record-crowd of 53,000-plus in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium for the Braves home opener, Aaron topped the mighty Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714, which stood for 39 years, when he took Los Angeles Dodgers Al Downing’s 1-0 pitch over the left field wall for his 715th career home run. As he rounded the bases, he was greeted between second and third by two white college students who congratulated the slugger all the way to home plate. Opposing play-by-play announcer Vin Scully declared this a "marvelous moment for baseball … the country and the world … A black man getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol." Hank Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs and remains atop the list of the greatest players in the history of baseball. Upon retirement, he joined the Braves head office and since 1980 has served as the senior vice president and assistant to the Braves president. Henry Louis Aaron was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1999, the Hank Aaron Award was created to honor each league’s most effective hitter. That same year, The Sporting News placed him fifth on their "100 Greatest Baseball Players" list. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Hank with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.