On April 8th, 1974, Hank Aaron overtook Babe Ruth's home run record when he hit his 715th home run. At the time, there were over 53,000 people in the stands to celebrate with him when he hit Al Downing's 4th inning pitch.
It was certainly a moment to celebrate. It was also sort of bittersweet.
Even though Barry Bonds surpassed Hank's record in 2007, the Hank Aaron home run remains one of the most iconic and inspiring moments in MLB history.
If you're in the mood to take a bite out of baseball's history, you're in the right place. Today, we're going to talk about why the Hank Aaron home run remains one of the greatest achievements in baseball history, and why Hank Aaron sports memorabilia is some of the most sought after in baseball.
Who is Hank Aaron?
Before we can talk about why that home run in 1974 was so iconic, we need to understand a little more about the man behind the record.
On February 5th, 1934, Herbert and Estella Aaron gave birth to their son Henry in Mobile, Alabama. He was the third of eight children to grow up in the poor black area in Alabama and would eventually get the nickname Hank.
When he was 8, his family moved to a middle-class neighborhood where Hank eventually took a liking to baseball and football. During his schooling, which was segregated, instead of focusing on academics, he focused on sports.
He was very good at both baseball and football, and when he was busy playing baseball for his school, he played third base and shortstop.
When Hank was a junior in high school, he transferred to a nearby private school with an organized baseball program. Graduation wasn't on the docket for Hank Aaron however, as he dropped out of school in 1951 to play baseball for the Negro Baseball League Indianapolis Clowns.
During his short stint in the Negro Baseball League, Hank Aaron hit .366 and helped his club win the World Series in 1952.
It wasn't long before the Milwaukee Braves signed Hank for $10,000 for one of their minor league clubs. Just like everything else in Hank Aaron's life, he crushed it quickly.
He was named the Player of the Year in 1952. The next year they promoted him from his Class C farm club to the Class A Jacksonville Braves where he posted 208 hits, 22 home runs, and had a .362 batting average.
Major League Career
When Hank Aaron was only 20 years old, an injury left a spot open on the major league team the Milwaukee Braves. He stepped up and took the position of outfielder. His first year, like all of his other first years, was stellar, he continued on with his baseball career going strong. In fact, during his 1955 season, he had a .328 batting average.
It wasn't all fun and games though. When Hank Aaron moved up to Class A, his race started to become an issue for baseball fans. Hank wrote in his autobiography that this was in contrast to when he was in Class C, where his race wasn't such an issue.
It seemed that Hank Aaron was unstoppable for a long time. He had a host of achievements in just his first few years in playing for the major leagues and he showed no signs of slowing down.
By the time his stunning home run in 1974 came around, he had helped his underdog team win a World Series and consistently belted 30-40 home run seasons out of the park.
A Sign of the Times
The 1950s-1970s weren't exactly the most socially progressive times in American history, and Hank Aaron would suffer the consequences.
During Hank's major league careers, he experienced a lot of hate from many different sources. Even the mayor of Jacksonville, Florida warned him that he should just deal with the racial insults slung at him from fans.
It wasn't just racial slurs and insults that fans would throw unfortunately. Rocks and black cats made their way to the field when Hank Aaron took to the diamond. Fans would come to the stadium with mops on their heads to mock black baseball players. There were even death threats that the FBI had to investigate.
It wasn't just from fans or elected officials either. Even the stadiums that Hank Aaron played in had segregated seating. Even though 1954 marked the end of "separate but equal,” segregation took a while to stop.
Signs that said "whites only" remained. It even took Aaron's own team until 1961 to take down the signs in their stadium.
This segregation directly hit the black players as well. When their white teammates ate inside of restaurants, the black players ate on the bus.
When the team had to house the players, they did so separately when the town they stayed in called for it. Even some newspapers in Florida wouldn't show pictures of black players in the papers. Perhaps worse than all of this was the personal mail Hank Aaron received.
In the early 70s, "fans" from all around the US sent Hank Aaron over 990,000 pieces of mail, so much that the US Post Office gave him a special plaque celebrating the fact that he got more mail than anyone else in the US, aside from politicians.
Not all these letters were full of good cheer or well wishes. In fact, most of them were just the opposite.
The exact content of most of these letters is too crude to repeat, using racial slurs and death threats to scare Aaron off the team. Any fault the Braves might have had, people attributed them to the black players on the team and tried to convince the coaches to throw them off.
When the team moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Hank Aaron wasn't thrilled at the idea. He was afraid that the heart of the Martin Luther King Jr. movement and the home of many prestigious black universities was still stuck too far in the past. In many ways, he was right.
At their opening game in Atlanta, the crowd cheered the loudest when a scoreboard read "The South Rises Again" and his wife spent most of the game listening to fans call her husband racial slurs.
The Lead-Up to Greatness
Despite how the social environment of the time was such a negative experience for players of color, it was perhaps this adversity that gave Hank Aaron the drive he needed to set his sights on such a lofty goal.
He knew that he needed a way to get white fans behind him, and the best way he could do that was to be consistently good. He had to be the best player on the diamond time and time again.
This is perhaps one of the things that make the Hank Aaron home run such a colossal achievement. Despite all of this adversity he faced, despite the hate from fans, despite the racist ideology of the very institution he played for, Hank Aaron gunned for the home run record.
Babe Ruth's Record
Before Hank Aaron overtook the home run record, it belonged to the one and only Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth is a baseball player of legendary status. He went by many nicknames, some people knowing him just as the Babe while others called him the Great Bambino or the Sultan of Swat.
He was beloved by all baseball fans for saving baseball. It was a dying sport thanks to the White Sox and the scandal that arose when members of their team conspired to lose the World Series in order to line their pockets with gambling money.
Babe Ruth changed all of that. He was so good at what he did, fans came from all over to see him swing his bat.
In order to understand exactly why the Hank Aaron home run is so important, you need to understand who's record he broke, because as soon as Hank Aaron started to creep up on the babe's legendary 714, the fans noticed.
Grit and Tenacity
Most baseball fans weren't pleased to see a black player set to overtake their beloved Babe Ruth's spot as the person with the most home runs in baseball. The FBI had to investigate a large number of death threats against both Hank and his wife, and to make matters worse there were a few plots to kidnap his children as well.
When the "Aaron is Ruth-less" bumper sticker started circulating, the hate mail got worse.
It was at that point that Hank Aaron really set his mind on the idea of overtaking the home run record. He felt like he had to do it for everyone who laid the trail for him to get where he was, for his people, for himself, and for all of the fans shouting racial slurs and sending death threats.
It was time.
April 8th, 1974
It started off the way most monumental mornings do: like any other day. Baseball fans were biting their nails, wondering if that night would be the night that Hank Aaron finally did it.
Just four days before, Hank Aaron tied with Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record. That night, which also happened to be The Braves' opening game for that season, could be the night that changed everything.
This was a much-anticipated event. Because while Hank Aaron was dealing with racism and hate from the Babe Ruth fans, those same fans were also watching in awe as Aaron crawled closer and closer to the record. The Braves became the focus of baseball every time Hank Aaron swung his bat.
This attention wasn't an accident, either. The Braves' front office promotional management team promised that everyone would know just how important this moment was for baseball history.
They decked out the field and the stands with flags, balloons, a band, a choir, and even Pearl Bailey to belt out the Star-Spangled Banner.
The stadium was packed full. The Braves played against the Los Angeles Dodgers that day, and they sent their best pitcher to the mound to attempt to bat down Aaron's attempt to smash the record.
Hank Aaron stepped up to the plate in the second inning, but the whole crowd booed as the Dodgers' pitcher walked Aaron with five poor pitches, not even earning a swing in response.
It wasn't until the fourth inning that things really got heated. This time when Aaron and Downing, the pitcher that the Dodgers sent in to contest him, came head to head, Downing had no choice but to really deliver a challenge.
It was with Hank Aaron's first swing of the evening that he started the arc of history on its trajectory. He cracked the ball towards left-center, 400 feet from home plate. No one had any chance to catch it.
That was all it took for the screen in left-center to start flashing "715", announcing Hank Aaron's ascent into baseball history.
Afterward, Hank Aaron was just thankful it was over. In the months leading up to his record-breaking home run, Hank Aaron had to deal with interviews, an unfair amount of pressure under the public eye, and death threats to everyone in his family.
Also, for the record, the Braves won that history-making game.
Today in 2018, Hank Aaron is 84 years old. He gets around a little slower than he used to thanks to a hip replacement, but he's still changing lives. He and his wife run the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, a foundation dedicated to helping children with fewer opportunities to chase their dreams.
So far, he's helped over 1,000 young people with financial assistance through its many different programs.
While this might be far from the historical home run that knocked the Babe down from the number one spot, he's dedicated to doing more.
The Hank Aaron Home Run
Many years have passed since the Hank Aaron home run changed the world of baseball forever, and in 2007 someone else overtook the top spot, but to this day, this home run and the player that hit it, remain one of the most important parts of sports history.
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