On April 8, 1974, more than 50,000 fans descended on Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Atlanta Braves.
Aaron arrived at the park with 714 career home runs to his name, tying him with Babe Ruth for the most all time. Between him needing one more to top Ruth and the fact that the game was Atlanta's home opener, it's no wonder a massive celebration had been prepared.
An American flag in the shape of the United States was painted on the grass in center field, which, according to Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated, served as the site for a pregame television special. Pearl Bailey was there to sing the national anthem. Sammy Davis Jr. was also in attendance, as were Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.
Also arranged were several thousand balloons, dancers and two bands. And whereas typical Atlanta openers had 17 policemen on duty, this one had 63.
In all, as Howard Bryant wrote in The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, the day's inventory "looked as though it belonged to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade instead of to a baseball game."
In the last hour before game time, however, things were quiet in the Braves clubhouse. Though clubhouses were typically kept open to the press until 30 minutes before first pitch, the Braves had closed theirs early. In addition to having dealt with enough pressure, manager Eddie Mathews figured his star slugger had answered plenty of questions.
Aaron's teammates went along with the church-like vibe in the clubhouse, keeping quiet and maintaining their distance from the man of the hour. Aaron himself, however, ventured to break the silence when he approached fellow outfielder Ralph Garr.
“Ralph,” Aaron said, according to Bryant, “I’m gonna break it tonight. I’m tired. I’m going to break the record so we can get down to serious business.”
Garr's response: “I think you are, Hank."
Roughly 365 days earlier, Aaron entered 1973 with 673 home runs and what appeared to be slim odds of hitting anything close to the 41 he needed to tie Ruth by season's end.
Aaron was no spring chicken, after all. The 1972 season had been his age-38 campaign, and his body had allowed him to play in only 129 games. He also saw his home run output fall to 34 from 47 in 1971.
There was also no historical precedent for what Aaron was looking to do in '73. It was to be his age-39 campaign, and at the time, the most home runs ever hit by a player 39 years or older was 30 by Cy Williams in 1927.
Of course, this would be neither a great baseball story nor a great Aaron story if he didn't just keep on slugging.
Aaron hit five home runs in April and eight more in May. By the All-Star break, he had launched 27 home runs.
William Leggett of Sports Illustrated saw this outburst as being classic Aaron, writing:
Rarely a day passes that this grand warrior does not make news. His statistical accomplishments are so vast and continuous that putting them into perspective is as difficult as standing at the depot and trying to remember freight car numbers as they pass.
Tom Buckley of The New York Times (subscription required) would eventually write that 1973 was the season in which Aaron finally got the appreciation he had long deserved but never gotten. That was largely thanks to the charismatic duo of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, who easily overshadowed the quiet and reserved Aaron.
"Now Mantle was gone and Mays was fading," wrote Buckley. "Aaron was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, a daily subject of television interviews and newspaper articles, and the recipient of tens of thousands of letters from admirers and a comparative handful of crank notes."
As Leggett noted in his piece on Aaron's 1973 season, an "overwhelming majority" of the thousands of letters were positive. Aaron had never had as many fans as he did then, after all.
Regarding the other letters...Well, suffice it to say that some weren't very enthused at the idea of a black man going after Ruth's record.
Aaron showed Mike Capuzzo of Sports Illustrated some examples in 1992, including at least one that exemplified both the racism and threats that Aaron so often encountered:
Dear [deleted] Henry,
you are [not] going to break his record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it.... Whites are far more superior than [deleted].... My gun is watching your every black move.
It was arranged for Aaron to have a bodyguard, who did his best to hide especially hateful letters. The Braves did their best to filter out letters with assassination threats, which were sent directly to the FBI.
The hateful letters Aaron did see, however, certainly left their mark.
“If I were a white man, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron was quoted as saying in 1973, via the New York Daily News. “But I’m black. You have to be black in America to know how sick some people are. I’ve always thought racism a problem, even with as much progress as America has made.”
If there was a bright side, it was that '73 ensured the chase for the record would soon be over. Despite being limited to 120 games, Aaron finished the season with 40 home runs and 1.045 OPS.
|Greatest Age-39-or-Older Seasons by OPS+ (min. 400 PA)|
By shattering expectations with his 40 home runs in 1973, Aaron put his career total at 713. When baseball returned in the spring, it would only be a matter of when and where Aaron would first match, and then surpass, the Bambino's record.
To these ends, there was nearly controversy.
The Braves didn't just see history approaching in 1974. They saw a money-making opportunity, as being able to sell Aaron's 714th and 715th home runs to the home fans would surely provide a much-needed boost to attendance after finishing next to last in the National League at the gate in '73.
This would mean having Aaron sit out the Braves' first three games in Cincinnati so his season wouldn't begin until the Braves returned home. It was an idea that, according to The New York Times, Aaron was publicly on board with.
But eventually, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn entered the picture and settled the matter. As told by Red Smith of The New York Times, Kuhn made it clear to Braves president William Bartholomay that to intentionally sit the club's cleanup hitter for the sake of home ticket sales would be very bad form.
So sure enough, there was Aaron on Opening Day (April 4) in Cincinnati, batting cleanup and playing left field.
His first at-bat came in the top of the first inning with two men aboard and one man out. Reds right-hander Jack Billingham delivered a pitch that caught a little too much of the plate, prompting Aaron to uncork his first swing of the season.
A few moments later, there was No. 714.
Aaron was mobbed by his teammates at home plate while the Cincinnati crowd stood and applauded. There was, according to Dave Anderson of The New York Times, a lengthy delay in which the ball was retrieved and Aaron was paid proper tribute.
Participating were Kuhn and Bartholomay, as well as vice president Gerald Ford. He wished Aaron luck in getting to No. 715, and Aaron himself was given a microphone to address the Cincinnati crowd.
“I’d certainly like to thank you very much," said Aaron. "I’m just glad it’s almost over with.”
Aaron failed to homer in his next three trips to the plate that day. He didn't play on April 6, and went 0-for-3 on April 7. He left Cincinnati stuck on 714, with his next shot at 715 slated to come in Atlanta's home opener on April 8.
Cue the hoopla and the anticipation.
Set to do battle with the Braves on the big day were the Dodgers, who would be starting lefty hurler Al Downing. A Cy Young contender in 1971, it was to be his job to deny Aaron home run No. 715.
"I will pitch to Aaron no differently tonight," Downing said before the game, via Fimrite. "I'll mix my pitches up, move the locations. If I make a mistake, it's no disgrace. I don't think the pitcher should take the glory for No. 715. He won't deserve any accolades. I think people will remember the pitcher who throws the last one he ever hits, not the 715th."
Downing's plan of attack wasn't necessarily dictated by the scouting report. In fact, Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager recalled to Bryant that the scouting report on Aaron included just two words: "Henry Aaron."
Said Yeager: "What else did you need to say? I mean, he was Henry Aaron."
When the game began, the home fans were more than ready for Aaron to come to bat. That happened in the bottom of the second after Downing and Atlanta's Ron Reed traded 1-2-3 innings in the first.
When Aaron was in the box to lead off the home half of the second, Downing was careful with him. Careful enough, as it turned out, to walk him on five pitches.
The crowd groaned. "Not right now, Henry," was Dodgers announcer Vin Scully's call.
Aaron came around to score on a double by Dusty Baker, but the Braves soon found themselves trailing 3-1 after Reed gave up a trio of runs in the third inning.
That was the score when Aaron came to the plate in the bottom of the fourth. Darrell Evans reached on an error to get to first with nobody out, meaning Aaron's 715th would also mean a tie game.
There was a long standing ovation for Aaron as he strode to the plate for his second at-bat, but the cheers turned to boos when Downing delivered low for ball one.
Then came the 1-0 pitch. It was a fastball, and Downing would soon be reminded what All-Star pitcher Curt Simmons had once said: "Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster."
As soon as the ball was in the air, it looked like it could be. And when it landed, it was.
The ball landed to the right of the 385-foot marker in left-center, where it was retrieved by Braves reliever Tom House. He immediately headed in the direction of home plate, holding the ball over his head.
As Aaron began his trot around the bases, two 17-year-old fans decided that just standing and applauding wasn't good enough. Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay leaped onto the field and sprinted in the new home run king's direction.
“‘Planning’ is not a word I would apply to it," recalled Courtenay in 2010. "It was pretty spontaneous."
In the stands sat Calvin Wardlaw, Aaron's bodyguard, with a pistol concealed in a binocular case. He didn't know what to do when he saw two white kids sprinting in Aaron's direction, telling Capuzzo in 1992 that the decision to act or stay put was the hardest of his life.
But no harm came to Aaron, as all the two kids wanted to do was pat him on the back and congratulate him before veering off to evade capture (which they didn't, for the record). If ever there was a sign that the hateful didn't speak for everyone, that was it.
Meanwhile, the home crowd was standing and applauding before and after Aaron's encounter on the basepaths. It kept cheering when he met his teammates at home plate, and when he found himself in the arms of his mother, Estella, behind home plate.
It's Braves announcer Milo Hamilton's call that you typically hear attached to Aaron's home run. Any self-respecting baseball fan should know it by heart: "There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron!"
It was Vin Scully in the Dodgers booth, however, who really captured the significance of the moment.
Earlier this year, Scully recalled for reporters how his roughly half-minute of silence following the home run was partially out of habit. It was also partially because he got up to grab a drink of water.
That's when Scully said it hit him what it was he was watching and what it all meant, and he returned to the mic to put it into words:
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.
From a baseball perspective, Aaron's homer helped guide the Braves to a 7-4 victory, effectively giving him two victories on the day.
When it was finished, though, his prevailing emotion was simple relief.
"I just thank God it's all over," he said, according to Fimrite. He added: "I feel I can relax now. I feel my teammates can relax. I feel I can have a great season."
And by 40-year-old standards, he did. The 20 home runs Aaron hit in 1974 were the third-most ever by a player 40 or older. He added 22 more in 1975 and 1976, finally calling it a career with 755 career home runs. He didn't just beat Ruth's record. He shattered it.
Here we are 40 years later, and Aaron is No. 2 on the all-time home run list. His record was broken on August 7, 2007 when Barry Bonds blasted his 756th career home run into the San Francisco night. Moments later, there was Aaron on the AT&T Park videoboard to deliver his congratulations.
"My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams," said Aaron in a pre-recorded message, via MLB.com.
It may be a while before August 7, 2007 stands out as a date with the capacity to inspire. If it happens at all, of course, as there are obviously circumstances that make it difficult to honor Bonds' achievement.
It's a good thing we have April 8, 1974, which will surely resonate just as strongly after 50, 60, 100 or however many years as it does after 40.
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