FROM 50 MOMENTS THAT DEFINED MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
Hank Aaron: 715 with Class and Dignity
April 4, 1974
In a sport where statistics are held sacred, there are a few numbers that stand alone. Joe DiMaggio’s 56, Cy Young’s 511 and Roger Maris’ 61 are statistics in which the number itself has become so iconic, no explanation is needed. You just say “DiMaggio’s 56” and even the most casual fan should know you’re referring to his 56-game hitting streak in 1941. In games played through the end of the 1973 season, the number 714 might have been the most famous of all. Since 1935, 714 stood for the amount of career home runs of Babe Ruth. It was a record that many from the 40s through the 60s thought was unapproachable. On Opening Day of the 1974 season, Hank Aaron was on the doorstep, ready to stand alongside the Babe.
On September 29, 1973 Aaron blasted homer number 713 against the Houston Astros. It was the second-to-last day of the season, leaving Aaron one more game to tie or beat Ruth’s mark. In front of 40,517 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the final day of the season, Aaron came up short in his attempt. He started the game 3-for-3 and came up in the eighth with one more shot at the record. He popped out to second though and ended the ’73 season with 713 career homers.
Fans had to endure the six-month offseason waiting for Aaron to take another shot at 714. Anticipation grew as winter turned to spring and teams reported for spring training. The Braves were set to start the season in Cincinnati for a three-game series against the Reds. As the season approached, there was talk around the Braves organization, that management was going to sit Aaron so he could chase the record at home. Eventually Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and ordered that Aaron play at least two of the three games in the season-opening series.
Opening Day of the 1974 season eventually came on April 4th and the Braves readied for their matchup against the Big Red Machine. Jack Billingham was the starter for the Reds that day. He was fourth in the Cy Young Award voting the year before, when he won 19 games for the Reds. The 6’4” righty was at the peak of his 13-year career and many felt he was finally turning into the top pitcher he was projected to be.
Aaron was batting fourth in the Braves lineup, so someone was going to have to reach base in order for Aaron to get his shot in the first inning. Ralph Garr obliged when he led off the game with a walk. Mike Lum followed with a single as the Braves started a quick rally against Billingham. Darrell Evans flew out to left to bring Aaron to the plate. Cincinnati fans stood for Aaron as they finally were going to see what Aaron could do after the six-month layoff. Aaron immediately blasted a homer to left-center on his first swing of the 1974 season to give the Braves a 3-0 lead, and tie Babe Ruth’s allegedly unbreakable record.
Not lost on the situation was the fact that it was a black athlete who tied Ruth at that sacred number 714. Ruth played in an era when integration was still decades away. However, Ruth often teamed with Negro League stars on barnstorming trips and was an early proponent of integration. Now, the two people who stood side-by-side at number 714 were the legendary Ruth and a former Negro League player, Aaron.
After the celebration of Aaron’s historic home run, there was still a full game to be played, and the fans had a new anticipation. The Reds went on to win the game 7-6 with Aaron failing to hit another home run in his subsequent at bats.
The Braves rested Aaron the next day as they fell to the Reds 7-5, but because of the league mandate, had to start him again in Cincinnati on April 7th. Aaron struck out looking in his first two at bats of the game and grounded weakly to third in his final at bat, before being lifted for Rowland Office in the seventh. Quietly, some writers whispered whether Aaron didn’t give his best effort so he could break the record at home.
This clearly did not sit well with Aaron, who opened his press conference addressing the issue: “I have never went on a ball field and not given my level best,” said Aaron, according to an article in the Augusta Chronicle. “I played in Cincinnati the two out of three games I was supposed to play. Contrary to some of the reports I have read that I was a disgrace to the ball club, I did my level best.”
Braves fans were sure they’d get their wish to see Aaron break Babe’s record at home as they returned for a ten-game home stand after beating the Reds 5-3.
Again, the prolific but reserved slugger would not make his fans wait long as they took on the Dodgers and Al Downing to start the home stand on April 8th. In his second at bat of the night, in front of 53,775 fans in Atlanta, Aaron blasted a 1-0 high fastball from Downing over the left field fence for a two-run homer that set off a wild celebration, complete with fireworks and congratulations from teammates, family, politicians and black baseball pioneer Monte Irvin at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Aaron had surpassed Babe on his way to putting up a sacred number himself: 755. While the whole ordeal was quite a spectacle, complete with a pre-game show and national TV audience, Aaron remained stoic and classy. Everyone got the sense that the celebration was more for the fans than it was for Aaron.
Tom House was a relief pitcher for the Braves in 1974 and ended up with the historic home run when it cleared the fence and landed in the Braves’ bullpen. He immediately ran towards home to present the ball to Aaron as he was mobbed by teammates and congratulated by his parents. Aaron held up the ball for pictures, presenting that dignified smile as fans cheered wildly.
A microphone was set up near the Braves dugout for Aaron to address the crowd. Unlike some of the in-game speeches and celebrations that have occurred in baseball previously, Aaron expressed more relief than celebration. Aaron approached the mic and simply said, “I just thank God it’s all over with. Thank you.”
He addressed his teammates afterwards in the locker room. Again, in true Aaron form, he offered an apology instead of heaping praise upon himself. He apologized to his teammates for the increased media presence, the sideshow nature the press created and the added distraction. He thanked his teammates for understanding and being so patient with him. Of course, Aaron was probably the only one in the room who thought this chase at history was a distraction, and it’s safe to say his teammates were happy and felt privileged to be along for the ride.
On April 4, 1974, Aaron figuratively stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ruth as the two shared the most revered record in professional sports for four days. For a short time, Ruth’s 714 became Ruth and Aaron’s 714. Two legends, nearly 40 years apart, reached heights that no other Major League Baseball player had ever achieved. For those four days, 714 held more weight than it ever did. On April 8th, Aaron took a step past Babe and continued his trek towards 755.