Hank Aaron eyes the flight of his 715th career homer...

Hank Aaron eyes the flight of his 715th career homer in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974. Credit: AP/Harry Harris

For Hank Aaron, chasing the ghost of Babe Ruth should have been about numbers. Instead, hauntingly, it also was about letters.

Fifty years ago, on the chilly, damp evening of April 8, 1974, batting against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing before 53,775 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Aaron hit his 715th career home run to break Ruth's career home run record. It  had stood since 1934, and because of Ruth’s outsized personality and folk-hero status, 714  probably was the most celebrated magic number in American sports history.

Aaron, who died at age 86 in 2021, was a celebrity in his own right, but without Ruth’s flamboyance. “I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth. I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron,” he  said.

If only it had been that easy. Unfortunately, a segment of Americans at that time wasn’t ready to accept a Black man dethroning a white man as baseball’s home run king.

A copy of a letter from 1973 sent to Hank Aaron as he chased Babe Ruth's home run record at Emory University in 2014.  Credit: AP/David Goldman

So while the countdown to history was all the rage during Aaron’s age  39 season of 1973, when he belted 40 homers to finish with 713, outrage simmered in the background. What should have been a glorious joyride became a torturous journey replete with scores of hate mail containing death threats and racist taunts, many using vulgar, violent and vicious language.

“I was aware of it because we were with him every night,”  Dusty Baker — who managed the Houston Astros to the 2022 World Series title    and was a 24-year-old Atlanta outfielder  in April 1974 — recalled recently in a phone interview with Newsday from San Francisco, where he is a consultant for the Giants. “Me, [outfielder] Ralph Garr, [catcher] Paul Casanova and his bodyguard Calvin [Wardlaw] kept things light.”

That meant hanging around with Aaron on the road, where he would register in two hotel rooms using aliases. “One was for sleeping. We talked to him every night. Our job was to make him laugh. Hammer — that’s what we called him — loved to laugh,”  Baker said.

But the hate mail Aaron received was no laughing matter. "I lockered right next to him. He didn’t bring letters to the stadium every day, but sometimes you’d see him stare at a letter and just drop it on the floor,” Baker said. “Then you knew it was a bad one. I'd pick it up and read what these people had written.”

‘He was so strong-willed’

You could imagine Baker shaking his head on the other end of a phone call 3,000 miles away and 50 years later as he recalled one particular note. “It was a death threat from some guy who told Hammer he was going to be wearing a red coat and he was going to shoot him. Ralph and I were nervous. It was a tumultuous time in our country. Assassinations were real.

“But Hammer was cool about it. He just had a different level of concentration. He was so strong-willed,” Baker said. “He had to not only compete against the pitchers, but he was also competing against a part of America. But that was Hank. There were certain things that drove him to a higher level of motivation. He wanted that record. I remember in spring training he worked on hitting home runs. Must’ve hit seven in about 10 exhibition games.”

Aaron kept those letters and threats a secret from the public until late in the ’73 season, when he finally discussed the subject with some writers in Philadelphia. Though mentioned only briefly in stories the next day, the revelation created an outcry in the media across the country and resulted in Aaron being deluged with letters of praise and encouragement.

He wound up receiving an estimated 930,000 pieces of mail — most overwhelmingly positive — earning a citation and plaque from the U.S. Postal Service for getting the most mail of any person in America other than President Richard Nixon in 1973. He had to hire a full-time secretary, Carla Koplin, to handle those correspondences.

No one would’ve blamed Aaron if he had burned the objectionable letters, but Aaron’s outward cool hid a fire within. He saved those letters and included copies of several in his autobiography, “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” written with Lonnie Wheeler and published in 1991.

“As the hate mail piled up, I became more and more intent on breaking the record and shoving it in the ugly faces of those bigots,” Aaron told Wheeler. “I’m sure it made me a better hitter. But it also made my life very, very difficult.”

Teammates greet Hank Aaron at home plate after he hit his 715th career...

Teammates greet Hank Aaron at home plate after he hit his 715th career home run against the Dodgers at Atlanta Stadium. Credit: AP/Charles Knoblock

Relief pitcher Tom House caught No. 715 in the home team’s bullpen. Of the enormous pressure Aaron faced, House told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2021, “In retrospect, I don’t know how he did it.”

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t help the situation. He put his gavel down on The Hammer, infamously intruding with proclamations and restrictions about which games Aaron should play, ordering Aaron to play two of three games in Cincinnati to open the 1974 season even though Aaron wanted to break the record at home.

It worked out, as Aaron hit number 714 in Cincinnati in the season opener, setting the stage for that April night in Georgia. Yet Kuhn, seemingly so obsessed with the record, decided not to attend the games in Atlanta, attending a fan event in Cleveland instead. “It didn’t matter to Hank that Bowie didn’t show up,” Baker said. “He didn’t complain. He just did his job. We were trying to win. We didn’t think about race and history until later.”

Between Kuhn’s actions, the hate mail, Atlanta’s indifference (small crowds late in the 1973 season), the presence of bodyguards and FBI agents, a stressful lifestyle and an ever-growing media horde, it’s no wonder Aaron said in an interview on the MLB Network, “The thing I remember the most about going through that saga of home runs is the fact that I could not enjoy it at all.”

Aaron expressed similar sentiments to Newsday in an interview at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of No. 715 in 1999. Reflecting on the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa duel of 1998, when both sluggers surpassed Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers, Aaron said softly, "I did think about all the embracement Sosa and McGwire had, as far as fans, sportswriters all across the country. Yes, I thought about all those things. I thought about if I had had just a little bit of that, how wonderful it would’ve been.”

Aaron called his shot

On Aaron’s night of nights in 1974, enough was enough. “It was cold, the coldest night I ever remember in the spring in Atlanta,” Baker recalled of a game that featured three rain delays. “I was the on-deck hitter. He walked out of the dugout and told me, ‘I’m going to get it over with right now.’ ”

Maybe Ruth didn’t call his shot in the 1932 World Series, but Aaron did.

The pitcher was former Yankee Downing, a 33-year-old lefthander protecting a 3-1 lead with one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the fourth inning. The pitcher wore No. 44. So did the batter.

"I walked him first time up and everybody booed me," Downing told MLB.com columnist Lyle Spencer in 2014 on the 40th anniversary of the historic home run. "It was the second pitch [after ball one] and I was trying to get the double play. I wanted to get a fastball down in the strike zone, hoping he'd roll over. It was elevated — and 'The Hammer' put the hammer on it.”

The ball soared over the fence in left-centerfield, past the leap of Dodgers leftfielder Bill Buckner and into the glove of House, who forever became the answer to a trivia question.

Atlanta relievers had met Sammy Davis Jr. in the clubhouse before the game, where the entertainer offered a reward of $25,000 for the ball so he could use it in an upcoming show in Las Vegas. House, who was earning $15,000 a year in 1974, told the San Diego newspaper, “I’ll guarantee, if you asked anyone on the field that day, if they would have caught the home run, they would have done exactly what I did.”

Which was to race to home plate and hand it to Aaron, who was celebrating with his family and teammates after a restrained but jubilant trip around the bases — no fist pumps, wild gestures or bat flips — that included a rare break from baseball protocol when Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes shook his hand.

Baker was not among the first to greet his friend and teammate. “If you watch the tape, you’ll see I didn’t rush to the plate because that was Hank’s moment,” Baker said. “You saw the way he ran around the bases. Hank always told us not to showboat. He’d say you already beat the pitcher by hitting a home run. We all emulated Hank’s humility. I never heard him brag.”

After the delay for the celebration, Baker remembered hearing loud noises as he walked from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. “Everyone was leaving!” he said, laughing at the memory. “They saw what they came to see. And it was unseasonably cold. I do remember that for Hank, especially, and for all of us, it was more of a relief than it was joy.”

Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home in Atlanta on April 8, 1974. Credit: AP

Moments earlier, Atlanta announcer Milo Hamilton had captured the exhilaration of the occasion, his voice rising as the ball did. “He’s sitting on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing . . .  Swinging . . .  There's a drive into left-centerfield! That ball is gonna beee . . .  outa here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There's a new home run champion of all time! And it's Henry Aaron!”

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully offered perspective. “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.”

To some, he’s still HR king

A day after the historic blast, even before the record books could be officially updated with The Hammer replacing The Babe at the top of the all-time home run list, there was rampant media speculation about who might one day surpass Aaron. Names such as future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench were mentioned.

“We thought Willie Mays [660 homers] might do it, but playing centerfield beat him up. At the time, I didn’t think Hank’s record would be broken,” Baker said.

Neither did another star outfielder of that era, Bobby Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. “I don’t think that there is any ballplayer right now who will make it. For now, Henry Aaron is safe,” he said in 1974.

At the time, Bonds, who died in 2003, had a 9-year-old son named Barry. Bobby Bonds and Baker broke into the major leagues the same year, 1968, and crossed paths many times during their careers. Baker saw Bobby Bonds’ young son frolic on the field at Candlestick Park many times during visits with Atlanta.

“Every father brags on his kid. Bobby told me what a great player he thought his son would be,” Baker said. “I thought, ‘OK, Bobby.’ But I don’t think even Bobby thought Barry was going to be that good.”

Baker saw up close how great Barry Bonds was, managing the slugging outfielder on the Giants from 1993-2002.

Because of Barry Bonds’ alleged involvement with PEDs, the San Francisco slugger’s pursuit of Aaron in 2007 was tinged with controversy. Their historic journeys had some common elements. Neither got to fully enjoy the moment. For vastly different reasons, neither was some people’s choice. The MLB commissioner was not in attendance for either feat. (Aaron chose not to be there for Bonds’ record-breaking homer.)

Many current baseball fans and some in the media still do not acknowledge Bonds’ 762 as the legitimate MLB career home run record, nor do they consider it one of the sport’s magic numbers. That faction has more reverence for Aaron’s 755 career total.

There’s some irony here, considering how little Aaron got to savor the journey to 715 until 25 years later, when he went on a book tour across the country and was honored by MLB.

“I’m having a great time with it now,” he told Newsday in 1999, joking that his record had been “hidden in the vault for a long time.”

Today, Aaron’s accomplishments are unlocked forever. Bonds’ 756th notwithstanding, Aaron’s 715th is the more iconic home run. The city of Atlanta’s History Center is commemorating the event of 50 years ago with a special exhibit called More Than Brave: The Life of Henry Aaron. The exhibit is open to the public from April 9 through the 2025 All-Star Game at Atlanta’s Truist Park.

Said Braves president and CEO Derek Schiller, “Hank Aaron’s 715th home run was one of the seminal moments in sports history.”

Unfortunately,  it wasn’t letter-perfect.

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