Forty years ago this April marks the anniversary of Hank Aaron's 715th home run. In the wake of the 90's and the steroid-era, many still believe Aaron to be the legitimate home run leader. Aaron's 715th came thirty nine years after Babe Ruth set the record after his retirement in 1935. But the year leading up to the record-breaking home run wasn't as poetic as one might think. Aaron ended the 1973 season one shy of the record, creating a pause in the hall of famer's pursuit of history— a pause that allowed the racial tensions of the country, a country just getting through the civil rights movement, to brew during the long offseason. That offseason would force the slugger to cope with the reality of life and death.
Following the 1972 season, where an aging Aaron had played in the fewest games since his rookie year in 1954, he signed a three-year contract with the Braves, making him the highest-paid player in MLB history at $200,000 per year. The deal essentially guaranteed that Aaron would break Babe Ruth's record as a Brave, needing just 42 home runs. But as he would come to find out, it wouldn't be as easy as showing up to the ball park and grabbing a bat.
In a racially progressive city in the Deep South (electing its first black mayor in 1973), Atlanta already had predominantly black neighborhoods like East Lake, Kirkwood, and Almond Park. After the 1960s, the black proportion of Atlanta's population rose from 38 to 51%, becoming an overall majority in 1970, while the white population dropped 20%. It was fitting that such a progressive city south of Mason-Dixon had a hero in Hank Aaron— and vice versa. Not everyone, however, was excited that a black man from Toulminville, Alabama was about to break the most significant sports record from arguably the greatest (and white) baseball player that ever lived.
© SI 1969
Aaron began the 1973 season with a slump. Although seven of his first nine hits were home runs, he wasn't hitting consistently, and his average hovered around .200.
"I went into the season (1973) wanting to break the record that summer, but it wasn't long before I changed my goal. I still wanted to break the record, but I didn't want to do it batting .240."
The slump lasted into May, and as Aaron struggled, so did the Braves, going 7-16 through the first week in May, and losers of five straight. They were bad, and the attendance reflected that.
"Our crowds were so pitiful that you could practically hear somebody crack open a peanut. There was a small group of rednecks who sat in the right-field stands and heckled me for three sraight nights. Finally, in the ninth inning of the third night, I walked over to the stands and told them I was going to come up there and kick their asses if they didn't shut up."
As May turned to June, and the warmth of the summer sun took over, Aaron's slump broke. Suddenly the reality of breaking Ruth's record became inevitable as the season led on through the later months. Number 714 was now just a formality, doomed to survive another season, and the country started realizing it, too. Soon, the thousands of letters Aaron had received throughout the year from fans, the majority of which were encouraging, were now turning racial.
Dear Super Spook, I don't care for the color of shit.
Dear Mr. Nigger, I hope you don't break Ruth's record. How do I tell my kids that a nigger did it?
Dear Nigger, You can hit all dem home runs over dem short fences, but you can't take dat black of yo face.
Dear Jungle Bunny, You may beat Ruth's record but there will always be only one Babe. You will just be another Black fuck down from the trees.
Go back to the Jungles.
Many believe it was just the sporadic hatred of a few bad apples that were responsible for the hate mail. It was, after all, during a time of increasing racial tension in the country. In fact, most of the letters came from northern postmarks. But British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew touched on the topic briefly in his book, "Sword and The Shield." He describes how obsessed the Soviet Union was with undermining the civil rights movement in America, and the need to sustain incessant racism among Americans, perhaps weakening its reputation to the rest of the world.
Whether random or by the hand of the KGB, the letters became so troubling that the FBI began screening Aaron's mail. Road trips and hotels were now reserved under pseudonyms of pseudonyms. Aaron's daughter, a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, started receiving death threats. An informer working with the FBI reported that there was even a plotted and attempted kidnapping on her life. The threats were so numerous to Aaron's life and family that the Braves ordered around the clock security for Aaron, hiring a policeman to "make sure I was tucked in at night."
But the hate mail continued.
Dear Hank Aaron,
I hate you!!!! Your such a little creap! I hate you and your family. I'D LIKE TO KILL YOU!! BANG BANG YOUR DEAD.
P.S. It mite happen.
But Aaron kept most, if not all of the mail a secret, only casually mentioning it to a few sportswriters. "One of the them made a note of it at the bottom of a story, but by then the story was picked up in New York and the whole thing broke open. From that point on, the mail turned."
The Braves struggled their way to a 76-85 record that year, fifth in the NL West. Aaron ended the season one shy of tying Ruth's record, but faring far better than his team did with 40 HRs, 96 RBI, and a .301 average— at the age of 39. The more important number, however, was 713.
The fall of 1973 and the winter of '74 brought change to both the city of Atlanta, and the world. On October 16, the city elected its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Abroad, the Yom Kippur War was coming to an end after two weeks, the oil embargo led by OAPEC (the Arab members of OPEC) was just beginning, and one of the worst crashes in the history of the stock market was only half over, and would continue for another full year, and in the process, devalue the London Stock Exchange's FT30 by 73%.
But spring was coming. Aaron would soon be married to his fiancé Billye in a quiet ceremony in Jamaica, and the sentiment of the country had turned to overwhelming support for Aaron, fixated on the upcoming season— a season in which he would make baseball history.
Spring training - March 1974 ©AP
The weather in Cincinnati on opening day was mild for early April—in the mid 60s. The clouds were scattered, the 52,154 in attendance on edge knowing they had a chance to witness Henry Aaron tie Ruth at 714.
Ten minutes into the season, and on a 3-1 pitch, Aaron's first swing of 1974 was a 390ft arching home run off of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Billingham. Coincidentally, the home run came on the sixth anniversary of Dr. King's assassination; fitting in a way. When asked in a post game interview if he felt like a hero, Aaron replied, "Dr. King was a hero. I am just a baseball player."
After a scheduled day off, Aaron sat out game two, and only played in game three after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn forced Braves manager Eddie Matthews to play Aaron under the threat of suspending Matthews— so he did. Aaron went 0-3 with two strikeouts. The record would have to wait until the Braves made it back to Atlanta.
The home opener on April 8 was the kind of night when a photograph would only take away from the moment. A comfortable but misty 60 degrees, you could breathe the anticipation into your lungs that a grand celebration was about to take place— those butterflies in your gut when realizing you're about to witness history. The stadium was full with 53,775 in attendance, the largest crowd ever at Fulton County Stadium, though no doubt hundreds of thousands have since claimed to be there.
Aaron's first plate appearance in the bottom of the second was a walk. Two innings later, at 9:07 P.M., on a 3-1 pitch from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing, Aaron made history.
You can listen to Aaron talk about the at-bat below:
As Aaron rounded the bases, two college students, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courteny, jumped onto the field and began running alongside Aaron. A polarizing moment both in sports and the nation's history.
There were three broadcasts of the home run call that night. Curt Gowdy who called the national broadcast for NBC TV, Milo Hamilton for the Braves radio network, and Vin Scully for the Dodgers radio network.
Below are the three calls from that night.
"What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron." -Vin Scully
Gaston and Courteny, spent that night in jail having been charged with disorderly conduct. For the game, the city of Atlanta and Fulton County Stadium had assigned extra police officers and security in light of the death threats Aaron had received throughout the season and leading up to the game. Two white men running toward Aaron, disorderly conduct was a lucky sentence. Gaston's father, who attended the game with the two boys, bailed them out for $200— money well spent.
©NY Daily News
Though the civil rights movement had peaked years earlier in the 1960s, many African-Americans, many Americans, looked to Aaron as a hero— a crowbar in the racial wedge of America. In spite of the scrutiny, the hate mail, the death threats, the heckling, he persevered— quietly, and with grace. He embodied every characteristic a man should have, including that smile that could replace every light in the house.
If you deleted every home run from Aaron's career, he still amassed 3,016 hits. His career .305 batting average is even more impressive considering the last three years of his career, he batted .268, .234, and .229 respectively. In his 23 seasons, he never struck out more than 96 times. And if you added up every total base he ever touched, in succession, he would have ran for 114 miles. He did all of this while never weighing more than 180 lbs.
The boy whose parents couldn't afford to buy him a bat or baseball, so he tied up old rags into balls to throw with his brother, the boy who at age 15 had a try out with the Brooklyn Dodgers, stands shoulder to shoulder in selective company as not just one of the greatest players in baseball history, but one of the greatest sportsman that has ever lived.
Oh, and in case you were wondering… the game on April 8 took 2 hours and 27 minutes to play. Even with the stoppage in play.
© Ron Sherman 1974
You can read this story in its original format at medium.com/@chrishpeak
Chris Peak is a freelance writer from Boston. You can follow him @chrishpeak
A note on sources:
Most, if not all of the quotes are duly attributed. The excerpts from the letters were taken from Aaron's autobiography, "I Have a Hammer," which he wrote in 1990 with Lonnie Wheeler.
Along with Aaron's autobiography, two other books were invaluable to me, "Hank Aaron," by Serena Kappes, and "Aaron," by Michael Benson.
The quote at the end, referencing the Ku Klux Klan, was taken from an interview done by the Academy of Achievement.