The anticipation was almost too much to bear.
Henry “Hank” Aaron had tied Babe Ruth’s fabled home run record of 714 on the last day of the 1973 season. The entire offseason was consumed by the talk of Aaron surpassing “the Sultan of Swat.” Death threats and racist hate mail flowed in. The Braves hired Aaron a private security detail. On road games, they would book a room in Aaron’s name, then lodge him somewhere else.
Aaron didn’t let it bother him.
“These people feel this is going to be a weak part of me,” he said. “They think they’ll upset me with their words or their shouts, that they’ll get me where I can’t do the job. “This won’t happen. I don’t like it, but I always do my best. This only makes me more determined.”
The Mobile, Ala. native was a picture of class and dignity.
Night after night he would stand vulnerable before tens of thousands of baseball fans — some of them friendly, many of them not — and calmly do his job.
“He’d play, shower and go home,” said Joe Torre, Aaron’s former teammate who is perhaps best known for his time as manager of the New York Yankees. “You talk about breaking that type of record, carrying that type of load. It was incredible. When you show up at a ballpark and there are 30,000 people in the stands, how vulnerable do you want to get? You’re right there. And that’s before all the metal detectors.”
Dodgers pitcher Al Downing walked Aaron in his first at bat in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974. A few days before, Aaron had tied Ruth at 714, so a record crowd was in attendance and press had flown in from every corner of the world.
In Atlanta’s outfield bullpen, every relief pitcher had laid claim to a 10-yard patch of territory that they covered in hopes of Aaron’s home run landing there.
When Aaron came to the plate for the second time in the 4th inning, the sound of the crowd was deafening. Then history happened.
26-year-old Braves relief pitcher Tom House caught the ball in the bullpen just over the wall in left-center field. The game was stopped, fireworks lit up the sky, and House ran toward home plate. Sammy Davis, Jr. had offered $25,000 for the ball. But House had other plans.
“Here it is, Hammer,” House said to Aaron as he handed him the ball. Aaron cried and hugged his mother, Estella.
“I had not seen much emotion out of Henry. That was cool,” House told the NY Daily News this week. “They both had tears in their eyes. She kept hugging him and hugging him. I heard later that she wouldn’t let go because she was afraid he was going to get shot. Some of the death threats had said he’d be shot at the plate.”
Today, the Braves will celebrate the 80-year-old Aaron with a pre-game ceremony and by wearing a path on the right sleeve of their jerseys the rest of the season that says “715.”
Hank Aaron still ranks first all-time in RBI, third in hits and second in home runs. And many people still consider him the home run king, although Barry Bonds passed him during what most people believe was a steroids-driven career.
But even when Bonds surpassed him in 2007, Mobile, Alabama’s favorite son was still a picture of class.
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader,” Aaron said. “It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
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