This is one of those entries that doesn’t require a bunch of explanatory background. If you’re reading this site you like baseball and if you have an even passing acquaintance with baseball history you know that on April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run, passing Babe Ruth, who had led in that category since he laid down his bat for good early in the 1935 season. UPDATE: I had that wrong. As reader Richard Mann reminds us, “Actually, Ruth’s mark of 714 had stood since 1935, but he’d held the MLB record since 1921, when he passed Roger Connor’s record of 138.”
You probably also know how stressful and harrowing it was for Aaron in the months and years before he passed Ruth.
Aaron received around a million pieces of correspondence in the early to mid 70s, and a great many of them were filled with threats, hate, and racism from people who did not want to see a black ballplayer break baseball’s most notable record. A few years ago Emory University presented an exhibit of many of those letters entitled “He Had a Hammer: The Legacy of Hank Aaron in Baseball and American Culture,” and the examples presented were odious. To this day, Aaron will remind you of that side of American culture, and will remind you that it still exists, even if a lot of us want to pretend it’s ancient history.
Separate and apart from all of that, Aaron’s approach to Ruth’s record was surrounded by controversy.
Aaron had finished the 1973 season with 713 homers, one shy of The Bambino. The Braves were scheduled to begin the 1974 season on the road in Cincinnati and, as the season approached, the team announced that they would not play Aaron in that series so that he would not tie or break the record until the Braves’ could get back to Atlanta. The media took issue with it and, as was so often the case, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn followed what the media told him he should do and told the Braves that he expected Aaron to play at least two of the three games in Cincinnati. Aaron hit a homer in his first at bat on Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium. He had tied Ruth.
Braves manager Eddie Matthews decided to keep his former teammate out of the lineup for the second game of the season. Kuhn, worried that he might sit on Sunday too, called Mathews and gave him a direct order to start Aaron in Sunday’s game or face “serious penalties.” Which, my God, could you imagine Rob Manfred doing that today? The press would probably eat him alive. In the event, it didn’t matter: Aaron struck out twice and grounded out on Sunday and the Braves headed home to Atlanta.
On April 8, 53,775 people filled Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. One person who was not there: Bowie Kuhn who, according to the New York Times, “had a previous commitment in Cleveland.” My God, Kuhn was the worst. The Commissioner’s absence notwithstanding, it was the largest crowd in the stadium’s short history at that point.
In the fourth inning Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers served one up and, for the 715th time in his career, Aaron smacked it out. Vin Scully has the call:
I’ll never not be shocked to see those two fans greet Aaron as he rounded second base at the 45-second mark. If that happened today they’d be tackled and tased before they got into fair territory. Even then, given all of the death threats Aaron had received — including one that said he’d be shot between the eyes before he crossed home plate if he got to 715 — it had to be a jarring and frightening sight. Nevertheless, talking about it ten years ago, Aaron cast it as kids being kids. Which it basically was. The two fans were 17 year-olds Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay. They were both arrested while trying to leave the field but were released a few hours later when one of their fathers bailed them out. The trespassing charges were dropped the next day.
You know the rest, of course. Aaron would finish the season in Atlanta, go back to Milwaukee for two seasons as the Brewers’ DH and end his career with 755 home runs. That record would stand until 2007 when Barry Bonds passed it. Controversially, of course, but we’ll leave that for another day. Aaron has spent decades in the Braves’ front office and, as a close friend of Bud Selig’s going back to the days when Selig was a minority owner of the Braves in the early 60s, he has often been called on for counsel and advice by Major League Baseball.
The only thing that stinks even a little bit about Aaron’s career and legacy: people probably focus on the home runs too much. Yes, he broke Ruth’s record and yes that homer he hit 46 years ago today was easily the most famous moment of his career, but in some ways it has served as a distorting factor, causing some to think fo Aaron as just a great power hitter when, in fact, he was so much more.
As Joe Posnanski wrote for this site back in 2014, “Henry Aaron’s singular achievement is that he was great EVERY SINGLE YEAR from 1955 to 1973. That’s 19 consecutive seasons without anything resembling a down season . . . In those 19 seasons, Aaron created 100 runs or more run 18 times. Nobody else in baseball history had 100 runs created 18 times in a career.” Aaron is also the all-time leader in total bases with 6,856, which is 700 more than second-place Stan Musial. It’s a record that will likely never be broken. Mike Trout could perfectly replicate his first nine seasons starting now and he’d still be over 1,800 total bases shy of Aaron’s career mark. Aaron hit for average. He hit for power. He got on base. He did it all. He was the Home Run King, yes, but he is also one of the few players whose inclusion on a very short list of “the greatest players of all time” could not be argued.
But sure, the homers were nice too.
Also today in baseball history:
1969: Expansion teams the Kansas City Royals, the Montreal Expos, the San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Pilots all make their regular season debuts and all win.
1975 – Frank Robinson makes his debut as the Cleveland Indians player-manager. He’s baseball’s first black manager. He wins the game, in part, because he penciled himself in as DH that day and homered in his first at bat.
1987 – The Dodgers fire long time team vice-president Al Campanis two days after he appeared on ABC “Nightline” news show and said that blacks “may lack some of the necessities” to be a field manager or general manager in major league baseball.
1989 – Jim Abbott, a pitcher who was born without a right hand, makes his major league debut for the California Angels. He will finish the season 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA and go on to pitch for ten seasons in the bigs for the Angels, Yankees, White Sox, and Brewers. He hrew a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993.