I was nine years old when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. As a baseball fan, this event is as clear in my memory today as it was 46 years ago. The Atlanta Braves were and still are, the team of the south and at that time their weren’t a lot of reason to be excited about Atlanta Braves baseball. But for two seasons, starting in 1973, all eyes were on one man; Hank Aaron and his pursuit to pass Babe Ruth.
At the beginning on the 1973 season, Hank Aaron needed 42 home runs to pass the all-time record. Our paper published a daily update that tracked Hank’s progress throughout the season. I was obsessed. Wake up, race down and get the paper. Go straight to the Sports section and see what happened the night before. At school, I had a Hank Aaron notebook, binder, note pad and pencils. It was all Hank, all the time for me.
Remarkably, Hank finished he 1973 season with 713 home runs. He had hit 40 on the season but fell two short of breaking the mark. Needless to say, opening day of the 1974 season could not come soon enough. On April 4, 1974, I vividly racing home on my walk from school to turn on the game. Luckily we had cable and I made it in time to see 714 leave the bat and fly into the seats, tying Babe Ruth for the record.
Now it was here, Hank Aaron stood at the precipice of a new home run record but it would be four long days until he hit 715. This night too stands out clearly. It was April, 8th and the the game was on at night; a school night no less. But that night, I stayed up and was able to see to record breaking home run. My dad, who was responsible for my baseball fever, was out of town but kept score of the game and presented me with the scorecard upon his return. He realized just how big a deal this was.
As a child , I was never aware of the racism and incredible pressure Hank Aaron faced as he worked to break the record. In a 1990 interview, Aaron indicated just how much the racism had affected him and his love of the game: “April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.”
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” he said. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
Luckily, Aaron came back to baseball. One of my favorite parts of the past few seasons were when he would join the broadcast booth for Braves games. His stories of playing with Jackie Robinson and players that seem to be part of MLB legend were incredible. Aaron was a link to that past and his absence will be felt wherever baseball is played.
“I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth,” Aaron said. “I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”
I will be honest, I had not thought of Aaron lately but today’s passing brings back nothing but great memories. Thank you Hank! God bless.
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