On April 8th, 1974, Hank Aaron broke one of baseball’s most hallowed records. Aaron hit his 715th career home run, surpassing the legendary Babe Ruth. In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how the record was broken, and the unprecedented pressure Hank Aaron overcame in becoming baseball’s career home run king.
Well before Hank Aaron even played his first major league game, a pitcher turned outfielder named Babe Ruth was hitting home runs at a pace no one had ever seen. Ruth was the first player to ever hit over 50 home runs in a season, which he did in 1920. And then he became the first to ever hit 60 home runs in a season, which he did in 1927. Ruth’s dominance would eventually culminate in him becoming the career home run king, hitting 714 home runs all time. Easily crushing the previous record of 138 home runs, set by Roger Conner in 1897. Flashing forward some years, a young man named Henry Aaron (or Hank as most called him) got his start at playing professional baseball in 1951 when he was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns (yes, the clowns) a team who played in the Negro Baseball League. His excellent play led to him being quickly discovered by Major League teams. The New York Giants and Milwaukee Braves both offered him contracts, but the Braves offered to pay Aarron $50 dollars more per month. Naturally Aaron signed with the Braves, leaving many to wonder what might have been had he become teammates with Willy Mays in New York. Aaron at the age of 20 years-old would go on to make the team in 1954, making his first MLB start on April 13, 1954 in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. In his first season he hit just 13 home runs, but he quickly began to hit over 25 home runs per season after that. By 1957 he hit 44 in one season, reaching 100 career home runs on August 15th.. He would continue to hit 100 home runs roughly every 3 years after that, reaching 200 career home runs on July 3 1960. He hit his 300th on April 19 1963, reached 400 on April 20 1966, hit his 500th on July 14 1968, 600th on April 27th 1971, and got to 700 career home runs on July 21 1973. By this point Hank Aaron was only 14 home runs away from tying Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 home runs.
Coming up short in 1973 & Hate mail
For the remainder of the year there was a big question hanging over Hank Aaron, of whether he could break the record before the end of the 1973 season. On September 29, 1973 Aaron hit his 713 home run with one day left in the season. Many thought he could tie the record during the last game, but Aaron failed to hit a home run the next day in a game against the Houston Astros. Hank Aaron said afterwards that his only fear was that he may not live to see the 1974 season. As bleak as that statement was, Hank Aaron had good reason to be concerned for his safety. Since his home run chase began, Aaron had been receiving massive amounts of fan mail, and a tremendous amount of hate mail as well. Some in the baseball world felt Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs was a sacrosanct record that should never be broken, due to Ruth’s stature as arguably baseball’s most famous and iconic player. Others were simply flat out racist, from those who didn’t want to see a black man break a white man’s record. It got so bad that even newspapers and TV stations who were covering the chase, were also sent racist hate mail because of the praise they gave Hank Aaron. However, there were many who were thrilled to see such an historic record about to be broken. Even Babe Ruth’s widow Clare Hogdson said that her husband would have enthusticatstly cheered on Hank Aaron, while she also publicly denounced the hate mail and racist slurs Aaron was receiving. Because of all of the attention that Hank Aaron got, he even received a plaque from the United States Postal Service for receiving nearly a million pieces of mail, more than any other person with the exception of politicians.
The lead up to 715
The Braves opened up the 1974 season on the road against the Reds. Concerned that Aaron might break the record away from Atlanta, the Braves management decided they were going to sit Aaron out for the first series. This caused somewhat of a controversy, as MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and ruled that Aaron had to play two games of the three game series. On his first at bat against the Reds, on April 4 1974 Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s record with 714 career home runs. However, Aaron wouldn’t hit another for the rest of the series. The Braves returned home on April 8th, for a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers would turn out to be a fitting opponent, as Hank Aaron grew up a Dodger fan, idolizing Jackie Robison. So much so, that he once skipped school to hear Jackie Robinson speak. As for the upcoming series, with all of the hype surrounding the record chase the first game was nationally televised on NBC, with a record crowd of 53,775 in attendance. Prior to the game, Aaron was quoted saying “I owe the fans of Atlanta a shot a 715, if I get a chance to hit it out of the ballpark I’m going to try to dispose of it.”
Breaking the Record
In the bottom of the 4th inning, with the Dodgers leading 3-1, Braves third baseman Darrel Evans reached first base on an error by Bill Russell. Hank Aaron came up to bat next against Dodger pitcher Al Downing, who had previously walked Aaron on five pitches in the first inning. On the second pitch, Aaron crushed the ball over the left field wall and into the Braves bullpen area, where relief pitcher Tom House caught the ball. As Aaron was circling the bases, two 17 year old kids ran onto the field and congratulated Aaron (you’d think for a guy facing that many death threats they’d have better security?). As Aaron came home he was surrounded by his teammates, while a young reporter named Craig Sager (who would later become well known for his colorful reporting during NBA games) was the first to interview Aaron during the celebration. The game was then paused for 11 minutes to recognize Aaron’s incredible achievement. President Richard Nixon tried to call Hank Aaron while he was on the field, but Aaron was obviously busy celebrating. The two did later connect, with Nixon inviting Hank Aaron to the White House for a celebratory dinner. However, they never would get to meet up as by this point Nixon was deep in the Watergate scandal, causing him to resign just a few months later. Another president (well future president) Jimmy Carter, who was then the Governor of Georgia was also on hand to congratulate Aaron. During all of this a mural of both Ruth and Aarron together changed to read 715 home runs, crowning Hank Aaron as the new career home run king.
End of Aaron’s career
Aaron would finish the 1974 season with 20 home runs for the year, hitting his 733rd career home run on the last day of the season on October 2nd. This would turn out to be his last home run as an Atlanta Brave player, as he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason. At this point Aaron’s career had come full circle, returning back to Milkwaukee after having begun his career there with the Braves before they moved in 1966. And because Hank Aaron was at the end of his career, playing with the Brewers who at the time were part of the American League, meant that Aaron could be used as a designated hitter rather than having to play in the field everyday. Hank Aaron wasn’t done breaking records just yet, as he set his sights on another one of Babe Ruth’s records. On May 1, 1975 Aaron broke the all time runs batted in record (previously held by Ruth), recording his 2,214 RBI. Aaron also was selected to his final All Star Game in 1975, having been selected a record 25 times throughout his 23 year career. And I know what you may be wondering, how can you have 25 all star game appearances in 23 years? Well, between 1959 and 1962 MLB actually held two All Star Games per season, where Hank Aaron was selected to both. He would go on to hit another 22 home runs over the next two seasons, during the 1975 and ‘76 seasons. Aaron hit last career home run, number 755 on July 20, 1976 at Milwaukee County Stadium in a game against the California Angels. After that season, Aaron officially retired and returned to Atlanta to join the Braves front office as a team executive.
Bonds Breaks Aaron’s Record
Six years later on August 1 1982, Hank Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He received 97.8 percent of votes, only second at the time behind Ty Cobb who had received 98.2 percent of votes. Hank Aaron’s career home run record would stand for over 30 years but would fallon August 7, 2007 when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit his 756th career home run. Bonds became the new career home run king, while also holding the single season record for home runs which he set a few years prior in 2001. However, this time around the overall mood and excitement around the home run chase was much different. For many years, Bonds had been dogged by allegations of steroid use and performance enhancing drugs which were banned substances throughout the league. Though he initially denied those acustations, Bonds would later claim that his trainer may have given him steroids unbeknownst to him. Nonetheless, the atmosphere around his chase was much more subdued and less celebratory than Hank Aaron’s record breaking moment. In fact, neither the commissioner of baseball at the time Bud Selig, or Hank Aaron were even present to congratulate Bonds. Although Aaron did send in a congratulatory video message. Hank Aaron later stated that his absence was not because he felt that Bond’s record was tainted but because he felt the game of baseball shouldn’t be about breaking records but simply about playing one’s best potential. In the following years, he remained a constant presence at Atlanta Braves games, and continued to live near the Atlanta area up until his death in early 2021, when he passed away at the age of 86 (just two weeks before his 87th birthday). As part of his funeral procession, Hank Aaron was taken back to a familiar place one last time. The only remaining piece of the old Fulton County stadium is the part of the left field wall where Hank Aaron hit number 715 over, a fitting last tribute to one of greatest to ever play the game.
So what did you guys think about Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record? And what did you think about Barry Bonds eventually breaking Hank Aarron’s record? Let me know in the comments below!