April 8, 1974 was a day I will never forget. I have mentioned in previous blog posts that I am a baseball fan. On this April day 44 years ago, a sacred baseball record, nobody ever thought would be broken was surpassed. For generations, Babe Ruth held the record for most career home runs at 714. For many years there were pretenders and false hopes, but until the 1970s, no one was close. For a while, Willie Mays seemed to be on track to catch Ruth but fell short. Henry “Hank” Aaron was the consistent power hitter who was finally able to surpass Ruth.
The build up to Aaron breaking Ruth’s home run record was intense. The chase really heated up during the 1973 season. Aaron ended the season with 40 home runs but fell short of tying Ruth’s record. Aaron had to wait the entire off-season before he would get another crack at the sacred home run record.
Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron is an African-American born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934. While he benefited from Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Aaron still endured a lot of racism throughout his career. This racism was magnified immensely as Aaron approached Ruth’s record. Aaron had to endure the entire 1973-1974 off-season dealing with vicious racial attacks. Aaron took the high road and patiently endured the brutal assaults while waiting for the 1974 season to start.
My father was a huge baseball fan and took compassion on Aaron’s difficult plight. He decided to write a letter of support to Hank Aaron. He showed me a draft of the letter prior to placing it in the mail. It was well written, emphasizing that he was in Aaron’s corner and fully supported him in the pursuit of Ruth’s record. He even mentioned my name in the letter, indicating my admiration of Aaron’s effort. My father mailed the letter and we both felt good about supporting one of our baseball heroes.
A few weeks later, we received a letter from the Atlanta Braves. We opened the letter and sure enough, Hank Aaron had written us a response. Even at age 13, I was aware of the concept of a form letter. I was convinced at the time, and even today, that this was not a form letter. Hank Aaron was receiving mostly negative, hateful, letters during 1973. I believe my father’s letter genuinely touched Aaron generating a sincere reply.
Somehow Hank Aaron survived the hate filled 1973/1974 off-season and was set to tie and break Ruth’s record early in the season. On that magical night of April 8, 1974, I was glued to the television ready to watch my hero make history. This was opening night for the Atlanta Braves, who were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had Al Downing on the mound. With the crowd booing loudly, Downing walked Aaron on his first at bat. Aaron came up again in the fourth inning and as there was a runner on base, Downing decided to challenge Aaron. Downing threw a high fastball, which Aaron deposited 400 feet away. The specially marked ball was hit over the fence at 9:07PM. I can still hear Milo Hamilton’s call echoing in my head. Even to this day, this was one of the greatest sporting events I have ever seen.
Part of what made this event so special for me was Hank Aaron the person. Aaron was a humble, quiet ball player who let his bat do the talking. When pressed with national attention and hate filled letters, Aaron persevered and consistently stayed on the high road. After achieving some level of fame, Aaron bore the responsibility of notoriety by becoming a leading voice in the civil rights movement. Webster’s defines a hero as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities or one who shows courage.” Henry Aaron fits this definition and is a hero for all to admire. We could use more heroes like Henry Aaron in today’s world.
Make the most of this day!