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  • Writer's pictureGrant McAuley

Hank Aaron's 715th home run turns 50: Golden Anniversary for Baseball’s Gold Standard

Henry “Hank” Aaron stamped his legacy as a baseball player 50 years ago when he became baseball’s Home Run King.

While Aaron’s accomplishments on the field were many, it was his reputation as an exemplary person and teammate that still stand out as much or more to those with the honor to play alongside him for any length of time.

Looking back on April 8, 1974, the night Aaron hit his 715th home run and broke Babe Ruth’s all-time record, his teammates still admire Aaron the man as much or more than Aaron the baseball player.

The Atlanta Braves are commemorating the anniversary of Aaron’s feat in a special ceremony at Truist Park prior to Monday’s game against the New York Mets.

“There might be somebody who’s as good of a baseball player as Henry Aaron, but I don’t think there was ever a baseball player that was better than Henry Aaron,” former Braves outfielder Ralph Garr said. “He had so much respect for the game and he played it the way it should be played…. Even as great a baseball player as he was, he was an even greater human being.”

That statement came to define Aaron as a teammate for 23 seasons in the major leagues and as a person in all stages of his life.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934, Aaron’s professional career began with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1951. A year later, he signed with the Boston Braves, who then uprooted the franchise after 82 years and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Originally a shortstop, Aaron quickly advanced through the minors and made the big league club in 1954 after left fielder Bobby Thomson fractured his ankle late in spring training. Aaron took to the new position and would play the outfield for the majority of his career.

Connecting for his first home run on April 23, 1954, against Vic Raschi of the St. Louis Cardinals, Aaron began what became a steady march toward baseball’s most prestigious record. He made plenty of history along the way. Aaron joined the 400 home run club in 1966, hit his 500th in 1968, and surpassed 600 in 1971.

It was in 1973 that Aaron’s consistent greatness in slugging drew him within reach of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714.

Aaron joined Ruth in an exclusive club when he hit his 700th career home run on July 21, 1973, becoming just the second player ever to reach that milestone. It was part of a 40-homer campaign for Aaron at the age of 40 and it turned the record chase into a countdown.

Throughout 1973, Aaron began to see some of the more unsavory elements of society attempt to affect his efforts to break the record. He finished the season with 713 career home runs, just one homer shy of matching Ruth as a new season approached.

Ron Reed spent parts of seven seasons as Aaron’s teammate and was on the mound as the Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers squared off on the night Aaron made history.

“He spent all winter in Atlanta and they got a lot of hate mail from these idiots around the country,” Reed said. “I don’t know where all of the letters came from, but some of them were pretty darn nasty. He seemed to handle it so well and everybody was wondering when is he going to tie the record and how much pressure is on the man? Will it take him a week, a month? Will that pressure get to him?

“Opening Day in Cincinnati, the first time he took a swing at a major league pitch for that season, he hit a home run off Jack Billingham for 714. That shows you how he handled pressure.”

After Aaron tied Ruth on the all-time list, the Braves were hoping to see him break the record in front of the home crowd in the second series of the year.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn had other ideas and mandated Aaron play at least two of the first three games. The ruling came despite objections from the Braves and manager Eddie Mathews, Aaron’s longtime teammate who wanted his friend to have the chance to make history at home.

As it turned out, Aaron went hitless on that Sunday and returned to Atlanta still tied with Ruth setting the scene for that Monday in front of a sell-out crowd of nearly 54,000 fans at Atlanta Stadium.

In the fourth inning, Aaron belted a two-run homer off Dodgers left-hander Al Downing. As the ball sailed over the outfield wall in left center, the stadium erupted.

Aaron’s teammates mobbed the slugger at home plate, where Aaron’s family and a throng of photographers, media members and fans also gathered. It was a surreal scene and one that signaled the completion of a journey Aaron had never imagined when his career began some two decades prior.

“There’s no way to explain how great it was to be a part of that,” Garr said, beaming with pride for his longtime friend. “A lot of people have asked me if I would like to be playing baseball today, but I wouldn’t trade anything for the opportunity to play in the Braves organization and with Henry Aaron.”

To understand the full scope of what Aaron accomplished the night he hit No. 715, it must be acknowledged how he arrived there. While the game itself and the culmination of the home run chase is an iconic moment in baseball history, it was also a relief for the Aaron, his family, and his Braves teammates.

Marty Perez came to Atlanta in 1971 and spent four years playing alongside Aaron. While spectators were focused on the home run chase and the history at hand, his teammates were more concerned with seeing their friend emerge from the entire experience unscathed.

“We were all glad that it was over with,” said Perez, the former shortstop. “There was so much pressure on Henry to hit the home run and a lot of us always talked about it, but we didn’t mention it to him. We all loved Henry and wanted him to get it off his back and go on and finish off his career.”

Aaron’s journey had become increasingly treacherous as he approached the record. Rather than having his accomplishment be universally celebrated, there were death threats, hate mail, and other displays of racial prejudice aimed at him as he closed in on Ruth’s mark in 1973.

“He had a lot of negative press and negativity with people writing him letters and stuff like that,” Perez said. “It caused a lot of anxiety, of course, not only on him but all of us. We were hoping nobody would go crazy and try to do something. We were kind of looking after him during the course of the game, Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr and a lot of his good friends on the team.”

The worst of the unwanted attention forced the Braves to take action beginning in 1973. The team hired a bodyguard and helped Aaron travel more discreetly. He often stayed in the team hotels under an assumed name.

None of that stopped Aaron from delivering on the field, which left his teammates to marvel at the determination required to push through both the mounting scrutiny and adversity.

“Henry Aaron was a special person,” Garr said. “He never did bring baggage to the ballpark. Every time Henry Aaron got to the ballpark, you’d never know he was chasing Babe Ruth’s record by the way he acted every day... He never did complain about anything that was happening to him when we played baseball. He was there to help the Braves play good baseball everyday as a teammate.”

Garr had a special connection with Aaron, becoming one of the slugger’s better friends on the team alongside the young Baker. The duo learned countless lessons on and off the field from Aaron.

“I tell everybody, Henry Aaron was a marvelous baseball player but even a better human being,” Garr said. “He was just so open. He wasn’t a guy that came up to you, but if you came to him, he would do everything he could to try to help make you better.”

As Garr and Baker established themselves in the major leagues over the course of the early 70s, they got a front row seat for Aaron’s eventual history making accomplishments. Though the path was not always smooth, Aaron displayed the necessary resolve to see the task through.

“It was very challenging, but he was up for it,” Garr said. “He was looking forward to trying to break Babe Ruth’s record and it was a good thing. It was a feat that looked like it would never be broken as long as there’s baseball, but records are made to be broken and we thank God that Henry Aaron was able to break it at that time. It was wonderful for the game of baseball and us as a society.”

Tom House was a relief pitcher for eight seasons in the major leagues and later became a renowned pitching coach and instructor. The night of No. 715 he found himself on the receiving end of history. House caught Aaron’s historic blast. Securing the ball and acting on instinct, he dashed to home plate with a gift for baseball’s new home run king.

It was an interaction House would never forget.

“As a low-end, major league athlete just trying to survive, for a brief moment in time I got to get in the superstar arena and experience not just the numbers and the celebration, but the joy of sport, the joy of baseball, the power of play,” House said of his special connection to Aaron.

Even five decades later, as his former teammates and friends reflect on that night as well as Aaron’s impact on their lives and on the sport, there are certain observations that remain common themes.

“Watching Henry, his commitment to excellence, he showed up every day and did in his process everything he needed to do to be the best Henry that Henry could be,” House said. “He didn’t do it with fanfare. He was very non-controversial. We all know the dark parts of our society with racism and hiddenness and biases and all that. With Henry, he was authentic. He treated everybody the same. He gave it his all. He was quiet and he was confident. When you put all those pieces together, of all the superstars I’ve seen, been around, and worked with, Henry was the most quietly confident, on and off the field, of all of them.”

There was a stoicism and a resolve that helped Aaron persevere even when there were elements actively rooting against him. That, as much or more than the statistics, is what makes up Aaron’s legacy.

“He went about his business like a CEO,” Perez said. “We saw that and we saw the way he handled himself. I came to realize that I wanted to be like him as far as playing the game. Of course, nobody is going to be like him, but at least to follow in his footsteps as far as being a person that people would respect. That’s what he taught me and I believe that other players were feeling that way too, because everybody loved him. He was a great guy.”

While baseball dominated Aaron’s life and elevated him to heights most players will only dream of, he never viewed himself as larger than the game. Likewise, his time on the diamond was not the only field on which he excelled. As a family man, a businessman, and with charity work and acts of community service, Aaron went about all of his pursuits in the same way. His dedication and humility led those around him to regard him just as Garr said, “a marvelous baseball player but even a better human being.”

Aaron, who after his retirement held front office roles with the Braves including senior vice president, took note of that phrase and the high regard so many hold him in.

“You know, my daughter says that all the time,” Aaron, a father of five, joked in 2016 at the Atlanta History Center while attending the premiere of a documentary about his life. “It makes me feel good because baseball has been my life, of course, but I’ve had them to raise... I’ve tried to be the best that I could as a man, not only from a standpoint of being a husband, but I’ve always tried to be very good for my kids.”

When the Braves moved into Truist Park in 2017, they commissioned a brand new statue to commemorate Aaron’s 715th home run which now stands in Monument Garden behind home plate underneath a screen which plays that historic homer on a loop.

Attending the unveiling of the statue alongside his wife, Billye, the greatest of all Atlanta Braves was appreciative of the honor and to be a part of the new ballpark and a new chapter in the club’s history.

“It’s beautiful,” Aaron said in 2017 of the dedication of the statue sculpted by Ross Rossin. “I don’t think I could’ve added anything to it. He did a marvelous job and captured every detail… I think about a lot of things and I’m very grateful to the Atlanta Braves.”

In the 50 years since Hank Aaron took his place in baseball history with home run No. 715, Braves and baseball fans are grateful for Aaron’s contributions to their club, to the game, and to any and everyone he impacted.


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