It has been 38 years since the moment occurred. A man simultaneously broke one of baseball’s hallowed records and showed lifelong bigots that intimidation and the anonymous threats of cowards would not be allowed to halt the evolution of baseball or mankind. The cover of the April 15, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated captures the celebration following Hank (Henry) Aaron’s 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s career total of 714.
The magazine sits framed on my wall as a reminder that anyone can accomplish whatever they set their minds to regardless of the adversity and opposition they may face. It’s about desire, faith, and dedication.
Hank Aaron’s major league career spanned 23 seasons – all but the final two as a Brave (first as a Milwaukee Brave then an Atlanta Brave). Over that time he averaged 37 HR, 113 RBI and hit for a .305 batting average. He was selected an all-star 21 of those 23 years, and was in the top 10 in MVP voting 13 times (including winning the MVP in 1957). He is baseball’s all-time leader in RBI with 2297 and total bases with 6856. He won three Gold Gloves and hit .362 in three post-season series. He is in the Hall of Fame, and is widely considered one of the greatest players to ever step onto a diamond.
The statistics, however, don’t give you the entire picture as to who Hank Aaron was, or what he had to endure to achieve what he ultimately is known for.
Aaron ended 1973 with 713 HR – one short of Babe Ruth’s total of 714. That meant he’d have to wait an entire off-season before completing his run at the record. That off-season “Hammerin’ Hank” had to endure constant media scrutiny, and even worse, constant letters expressing anger that a black man was going to break a white man’s sacred record. As reported by Larry Schwartz in his article “Hank Aaron: Hammerin’ back at racism” for ESPN.COM, Aaron received up to 3,000 letters a day and many of them were racist and threatening in nature. They came from all over, and Hank read them all. Schwartz quotes Aaron as saying:
“I read the letters because they remind me not to be surprised or hurt. They remind me what people are really like.”
Through it all, Hank Aaron conducted himself with class. He went about his business like any other ballplayer. Even in the weeks leading up to the day he broke the record, Aaron was subjected to a political tug-of-war between then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Braves management. The Sports Illustrated article by Ron Fimrite describes how the Braves wanted Henry to sit after tying Ruth’s record until they reached their next homestand. That way he could break the record in front of the hometown fans. Kuhn, on the other hand, insisted that he play so as to ensure that the best Braves team was fielded in every game – thereby protecting the integrity of the competition. Ultimately, it mattered not.
On April 8th, 1974, in the fourth inning of a game in Atlanta against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hank Aaron hit his 715th HR off Al Downing and stepped into baseball history. As Fimrite’s article points out, the weight of the world was seemingly lifted from Aaron’s back and he quotes baseball’s HR king:
“I feel I can relax now. I feel my teammates can relax. I feel I can have a great season.”
Aaron went on to hit 20 HR that season. It was the 20th consecutive year that he hit at least that many and, it was the last time he would hit that many.
Since the end of his career, Henry Aaron has continued to conduct himself with a quiet dignity as he moved into baseball’s upper-level management and the business world. As a tribute to Aaron as both a player and person, statues are erected in front of Turner field in Atlanta, and Miller Park in Milwaukee – an indication of the respect he has earned over the years.
When I look at the issue with the picture of “Hammerin’ Hank” on the cover, holding the ball in the air, I think that if my kids one day have to face the adversity and opposition he did they are able to react with the same grace and focus. To me, Henry Aaron will forever be a true baseball hero.