It had almost slipped by me that this week's Braves Cardboard Sunday was the 38th anniversary of the night that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. (Thanks for pointing it out gondeee!) There’s no greater cardboard memory than that.
When Henry Aaron hit the 713th home run of his career on the next to last day of the 1973 season, there was certainly good reason to think he could tie or break the record. It was, despite fewer than 390 at-bats spread across 120 games, his 40th home run of the season. The Hammer had been locked in all season and he had extra motivation to finish the record off and put the whole thing behind him before the off-season began. As his race for the Babe heated up during the summer of 1973, many fans voiced a displeasure bordering on the psychotic.
From the moment that it became clear that it was Aaron who would break the Babe’s record, there was a backlash. There were members of the press that were openly against Aaron taking the record from Ruth. For some, it was that he wasn’t as great as Ruth, for others it was that he wasn’t from New York. Members of the press would, of course, deny it had anything to do with his race. Would there have been a similar backlash if it was Mickey Mantle challenging the Babe? Of course not. Still, the attacks in the press were overwhelmed by the largely positive coverage that Aaron received. For much of his career, Aaron’s accomplishments took place under the radar, but he was now front page news and many were celebrating his accomplishments. These press attacks were mild though when compared to his hate mail. Aaron’s hate mail has become nearly as legendary as home run number 715 itself.
He opened and read every letter, before they were turned over to the FBI. The racial slurs are shocking, even when compared to the standards of the time. It is hard to fathom the hate sent Aaron’s way for no reason other than he was a black man challenging sport’s most hallowed record. While the hatred and racial slurs were bad, it was the threats that were worse. Even at the time, both Aaron and the authorities knew that the majority of the threats were coming from little brained people who lived impotent lives. They were about as likely to harm Aaron or his family as they were to have an intelligent thought. Still, the sheer number of threats necessitated that they be taken seriously. A few of the threats were even specific as to the time and place they planned to kill Aaron. From the summer of 1973 until the record fell, Aaron lived under a cloud of hate and the threat of murder. (Aaron was heartened however when news of the hate mail was made public and the overwhelming majority of the mail became positive and supportive.)
Obviously, Aaron wanted the home run race over as soon as possible. It wasn’t to be though. Number 713 was a three run shot off the Astros’ Jerry Reuss near the end of September. The final game of the season was the next night, and Aaron had a great game banging three singles off of starter Dave Roberts, but both he and closer Don Wilson kept Aaron in the ballpark. He entered the off-season one home run short of the all-time record and those few months were hell for Aaron. The hate and the threats continued. His daughter required an FBI escort at college. The stress was taking its toll on Aaron. He was seething and was more determined than ever to take the record, if for no other reason than to spite those that were threatening him and his family.
He came into the 1973 season as a man on a mission. In his first at-bat, in the first game of the 1974 season at Riverfront Stadium, Aaron took Jack Billingham deep to tie Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. The Reds fans came unglued at the history they had just witnessed. It was a great moment, but it was followed almost immediately by controversy. Aaron was pulled after his third at-bat, and Braves’ manager Eddie Mathews announced that he planned to keep Aaron out of the starting lineup for the next two games so that he could break the record in front of the home crowd. There was an uproar from sportswriters across the nation that the Braves were destroying the integrity of the game, led by Dick Young. The toady of the press, commissioner Bowie Kuhn, called Mathews himself and ordered him to start Aaron in the third game, or the Braves franchise would face serious consequences. Ultimately, it didn’t matter as Aaron went hitless in his three at-bats in his second game against the Reds. He headed home to try and break the record against the Dodgers.
By this point, it was inevitable that Aaron would break the record of course. The Dodgers were just looking to delay the historic home run as long as possible. Walt Alston sent right-hander Al Downing to the mound to try and stop Aaron and the Braves. The first time he faced Aaron, in the second inning, he walked him, much to the displeasure of the Atlanta crowd. Downing wouldn’t get off so lucky in the braves 4th. Darrell Evans led off the inning and Bill Russell would boot a ground ball up the middle. With Evans on first, Aaron stepped to the plate and lined Downing’s second pitch into the Braves bullpen just over the left field fence to become baseballs home run king. I don’t have the words in me to do the moment justice.
The night was a Monday night and NBC had come to town with Monday Night Baseball featuring Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek in the announcing booth. The game was also carried on Braves radio featuring Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson. On NBC, Gowdy’s call of the moment was exuberant and keeping with his style. The Hamilton call is the one with which most baseball fans are familiar. Hamilton’s call is excited and professional, even if he talks a bit much over the moment to my taste. (It’s a moment for many of us that’s colored by the fact that it was Johnson’s inning for play-by-play. Hamilton got the call because he insisted that he be on the mic for every Aaron at-bat.) The definitive call of the night though went to long-time Dodgers’ broadcaster Vin Scully. This wasn’t the first great moment he had called. Scully was behind the microphone for Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. His call of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game is considered the hallmark by which all play-by-play work is judged. On this most special of nights in 1974, Scully did not disappoint.
So the confrontation for the second time. Aaron walked in the second inning. He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does.
Al at the belt and he delivers … low, ball one, and that just adds to the pressure. The crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game. One ball and no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away, fastball …
There’s a high drive into deep left-center field … Buckner goes back … to the fence … it is gone!
(Scully holds his microphone out so we can hear the crowd and the fireworks. He says nothing for just under two minutes as we listen to the sounds of the celebration.)
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 world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us. And particularly for Henry Aaron who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves but by his father and mother. He threw his arms around his father, and as he left the home plate area, his mother came running across the grass, threw her arms around his neck, kissed him for all she was worth.
As Aaron circled the bases, the Dodgers on the infield shook his hand. And that was a memorable moment. Aaron is being mobbed by photographers … he’s holding his right hand high into the air and for the first time in a long time that poker face of Aaron’s shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.
It is over. At 10 minutes after 9 in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth. You could not, I guess, get two more opposite men. The Babe: big and garrulous and oh so sociable. And oh so immense in all his appetites. And then the quiet lad out of Mobile, Alabama. Slender and stayed slender throughout his career. And so it was a memorable moment before the game, and now what a sweet moment it is here in the middle of the game.
So Henry and the Babe, the two greatest home run hitters who ever lived and it’s a marvelous, wonderful, enjoyable moment here in Atlanta. We’re so happy too that it could be seen all over the United States and it will be duly reported all around the world. And I’m sure films of it will be seen around the world. And you can hear Georgia around the world!
Five to Collect: Baseball Cards Dedicated to Home Run 715
1974 Topps #1 - Topps wasted no time putting out a card dedicated to home run 715. The first card in the set released in the same year that Aaron hit the home run proclaimed him as the new Home Run King. Aaron taking the record was considered so inevitable that Topps released this card in March of 1974, before the season had even begun.
1975 Topps #1 - For the second year in a row, the first card in the Topps set was dedicated to number 715. This time, it was a highlights card and Topps included the details surrounding the home run. This would be the last base card of Hank Aaron as an Atlanta Brave. (Card number 660 in the set is Aaron’s first card as a player for the Milwaukee Brewers.)
1979 Topps #413 - Topps dedicated a subset of their 1979 set to All Time Record Holders. Each card featured the single season and career record holders for a number of statistics. Aaron was featured on card #412 as the all-time RBI leader (with Hack Wilson) and on this card as the all-time home run leader (along with Roger Maris). This card is not strictly dedicated to number 715, but I’ve always loved this card so I’m including it anyway.
1982 Topps K-Mart #43 - It seemed that every department store in the country had a small set of baseball cards produced in the 1980s. This was my first Hank Aaron card and when I was able to get Aaron’s autograph in the mid 80s, it was the card I had him autograph. Unlike the 1974 and 1975 cards, this card actually features the home run swing for number 715.
2001 Topps Golden Moments #385 - This card from the 2001 base set shows Aaron celebrating with his teammates following the shot that broke the record. The black and white shot looks a little odd against the green borders, but the photo itself is historic. A worthy card for sure.