If you’re a Hank Aaron fan, you know this date very well. April 8, 1974 was the day every sports fan celebrated the swing that put the Atlanta Braves outfielder in the sports history book.
It’s the day Aaron hit his 715th home run. That single, sweet swing pushed him past Babe Ruth for Major League Baseball’s all-time record for homers.
And sadly, this is the first time in 47 years Hank Aaron won’t be on hand to celebrate the anniversary. Aaron died in January. He passed away, quietly, in his sleep at his home in Atlanta at age 86. So many people mourned his death, from former President Barack Obama to country stars Trisha Yearwood and Tim McGraw. Aaron’s talents and the dignified way he fought for civil rights endeared him to millions.
In early April, 1974, the entire country was cheering him on as he chased the Babe and the most famous record in sports. Babe Ruth, aka The Sultan of Swat, played pro baseball from 1914 to 1935. He started as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But he dominated as an outfielder for the New York Yankees. Babe was one of the five inaugural members of baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Hank Aaron Started His Baseball Career in 1954, Almost Two Decades After Babe Ruth Retired
Hank Aaron started his career in 1954, almost 20 years after Babe Ruth ended his. He was amazing.
Aaron broke the Ruth record at home in Fulton County Stadium. The Braves were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Al Downing was on the mound. With a 1-0 count, Aaron slapped a slider over the fence in left centerfield. Aaron notched No. 715 in the fourth inning, with the homer coming just after 9 p.m. local time.
Check out Vin Scully’s call of the Hank Aaron homer.
Crowd Gave Hank Aaron Standing Ovation; Aaron Said He Was Happy Homer Chase Was Over
As he addressed the crowd after No. 715, all Aaron could say was thank God it’s over. The Dodgers’ infielders shook Aaron’s hand as he ran the bases. Aaron was old school and never a showboat. So there was no preening before he got to home plate. His teammates swarmed him as he touched home, making 715 official. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and some even ran on the field to celebrate with him. Of course, Aaron’s parents greeted him on the field, too.
Scully called it a marvelous day for Aaron, baseball and the entire country. He said, “a Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of a long-time baseball idol.”
In his autobiography, “I Had a Hammer,” Aaron wrote about the most significant swing of his career. “Downing rubbed it up and then threw his slider low and down the middle, which was not where he wanted it, but which was fine with me. I hit it squarely, although not well enough that I knew that it was gone.”
Baseball Star Never Talked About Death Threats As He Tried to Break Babe’s Record
While he was playing, Hank Aaron never really talked about his homerun chase. He was a Black man trying to break a major record of a white superstar athlete. Aaron later admitted he received death threats.
Aaron said the hate mail started to pile up as he neared Ruth’s record. One letter writer described how he planned on sneaking a rifle into the upper deck of Fulton County Stadium. The writer said he’d then shoot Aaron as he played right field.
On the 20th anniversary of No. 715, Hank Aaron, in an interview with the New York Times, opened up about what he and his family went through during the home run chase.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Hank Aaron said. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats. And I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck … had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time (and) I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
Aaron Was a First Ballot Hall of Famer
Aaron earned a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. He fell nine votes shy of becoming the first-ever unanimous choice. Still, he received a 97.8 percent approval on his first try. MLB now presents the Hank Aaron Award to the best hitter in the National and American Leagues each season.
Aaron served as vice president and director of player development for the Braves for 13 years. He then worked as the team’s senior vice president.
While he was an active player, he didn’t stop hitting homers. He ended his career with 755. But No. 715 on April 8, 1974, always will be a hallowed, celebrated day in American sports.