This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of baseball’s signature moments: Hank Aaron hitting his record 715th home run, to surpass Babe Ruth’s 39-year old record. But to appreciate how special that was, you have to understand who Hank Aaron is – and what he faced.
You’ve heard of Babe Ruth, who might be the best-known American athlete of the last century. Ruth loved the fans, and the fans loved him right back.
That’s why, when another New York Yankee, Roger Maris – a nice, humble guy – started closing in on Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season in 1961, he became so stressed by Ruth’s fans rooting against him that his hair started falling out.
When Hank Aaron approached Ruth’s career home run record, he had it worse, for two very simple reasons: 714 home runs was the baseball record, a number even casual fans knew. And second, unlike Maris, Aaron is black. Of course, that shouldn’t matter in the least – but it mattered a lot in 1974.
Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, one of eight children. They say his wrists grew strong from picking cotton, and his unorthodox practice of swinging “cross-handed” – that is, holding the bat with his left hand on top, instead of his right – was a habit he didn’t break until a minor league coach showed him the correct way to hold the bat.
Aaron made it to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, one of the first African-Americans to play Major League baseball. According to Daniel Okrent, a best-selling author who also invented fantasy baseball, the ’50s was baseball’s most talented decade, because in that era every kid grew up playing baseball – not soccer – and, thanks to Jackie Robinson, everybody was finally allowed to play.
Surrounded by legends like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, Aaron was often overlooked – and that was just fine with him.
He was a complete player, hitting for average and power, and winning three gold gloves for fielding. Yes, he hit his home runs, but not in eye-catching batches. When 50 homers a year was still the gold standard, the closest he came was 47. But he hit more than 30 home runs in a season 15 times – a record that still stands, even though nobody seems to know about it.
After the Braves moved to Atlanta, and Aaron finished the 1973 season just one home run away from tying Ruth’s all-time mark, there was no more hiding.
Aaron was no stranger to racism, of course, but what he faced during that long off-season was stunning – and downright scary. The death threats were so frequent, Aaron feared he might not make it to opening day in 1974. He wasn’t being paranoid: Lewis Grizzard, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports editor, quietly had an obituary written for Aaron just in case some lunatic followed through on his threat.
After enduring the off-season, Aaron was clearly ready for baseball to resume. The very first pitch Aaron received that season he sent over the fence, tying Ruth’s record. A few days later, on April 8, 1974, he smashed one over the wall in Atlanta to break Ruth’s record, once and for all. Aaron rounded the bases with his trademark poker-face, relieved it was finally over.
As a nine-year-old kid, I was blissfully unaware of everything Aaron had to overcome to achieve that mark. The next day in school, I jockeyed with my old friend Matt Colon for the right to announce the news at show-and-tell – and won, something I obviously remember to this day.
Aaron finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, the new American League team, toiling far from the spotlight, just the way he liked it.
When Barry Bonds approached Aaron’s all-time record of 755 home runs, many fans were again troubled, but this time for a different reason: just about everyone suspects Bonds of using steroids. That would help explain why Bonds’ home run production jumped from 16 a year to over 70; and why his hat size increased – in his thirties – from 7 1/4 to 7 3/8; and also why his personal trainer served time in prison instead of taking the stand to testify against his boss. Nonetheless, the toothless people who run baseball did nothing to stop Bonds, who broke Aaron’s record in 2007.
Aaron once again proved his class, congratulating Bonds on the Jumbotron. He also demonstrated his quiet dignity, doing so from afar rather than in person.
Despite setting one of the biggest records in sports, Aaron is not one of the biggest names in sports – probably not in the top ten.
He’s just one of the most impressive.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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