ESPN will broadcast a re-enactment tonight of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run that broke Babe Ruth’s all time major league record that stood for 39 years. Aaron hit the blast 40 years ago today, April 8, 1974.
The Milwaukee/Atlanta slugger hit a total of 755 home runs in his illustrious career. Aaron, however, does not hold the record today. That mark belongs to Barry Bonds, who ended up hitting 762 dingers.
But Bonds disgraced himself by taking performance enhancing drugs. Even though he hit more homers than Aaron, it is doubtful he will ever make the Hall of Fame, as sportswriters who cast the votes to send players to the HOF have yet to elect a PED violator from the steroids era.
I don’t think ESPN is necessarily trying to send a message that Aaron’s record breaker is more deserving of acknowledgment than Bonds’. But the contrast between the gentlemanly and dignified Aaron, and the surly, snarling Bonds along with Aaron’s sense of fair play and sportsmanship compared to Bonds’ cheating can’t be ignored.
The lead-up to Aaron’s historic blast was nervracking:
The legendary home run did not come without some controversy. Braves’ management wanted Aaron to break the record at home, but they opened the season with three games in Cincinnati. The team planned to sit Aaron for the three games, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled he had to play in at least two games.
Aaron, then 40, tied Ruth’s record with his 714th career homer in his very first at-bat of the season. He went 0-for-5 with a walk and two strikeouts the rest of the series against the Reds. On the first pitch of his first at-bat of his first home game of the 1974 season, Aaron broke the record with a solo shot off Al Downing, who had a long and excellent career himself.
As you can imagine, Aaron received death threats for months leading up to the record-breaking homer. Newspapers reportedly prepared obituaries in case Aaron was murdered in the days leading up to or just after breaking the record. He also received a lot of support, from fans and the media alike.
Aaron finished that 1974 season with 20 homers, his lowest total since his rookie season in 1954. He played two more years and retired with 755 career home runs, a record that stood until Barry Bonds hit his 756th homer in 2007. Ruth’s record stood for 39 years.
Believe it or not, Aaron only led the league in homers four times in his 23-year career. His career high was 47 home runs in 1971, but he did hit 40+ homers eight times. From 1957-73, only twice did Aaron fail to hit 30+ homers. The man was as consistent as they come.
Aaron turned 80 years old back in February. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1982, receiving 97.8 percent of the vote. That is the sixth highest percentage in baseball history and was the second highest at the time, trailing only Ty Cobb.
There are still a lot of people who consider Aaron the all-time home run king, but, either way, he is one of the best and most dominant hitters in the history of the game. Record or no record, he was (and still is) a class act and one of the greatest players who ever lived.
In 1968, the altar boys of St. Raymond’s parish were given a treat; a ticket to a major league ballgame at Wrigley Field. The Cubs took on the Atlanta Braves that day and we were all excited to see the legendary Hank Aaron in person.
It was late September and the cold north wind off Lake Michigan blew straight in toward home plate, signifying that there were likely to be no home runs hit that day. But as Hank Aaron stepped to the plate for his second at bat, a bunch of us left the cheap seats and, since there were only a couple of thousand people in the stands, made our way opposite home plate in the lower deck to watch the great one hit.
Aaron was not a big man, but he was immensely strong — especially his hands and wrists. We watched in amazement as Aaron swung at a pitch that appeared to be almost in the catcher’s glove, the bat whistling through the strike zone and meeting the ball perfectly, sending it on a low line over the center field wall for a home run.
The thrill of a lifetime. A homerun hit by one of the true gentlemen of the game — pioneer and icon. It is good to give a nod of recognition to the event that, 40 years ago, resulted in breaking a record many thought would never be broken.