The moment became an iconic one, with the indelible image of Hank Aaron rounding the bases, being joined by two fans between second and third, and then mobbed by his teammates and family at home plate, after breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
But for Aaron, the journey to 715 home runs was much more complex.
The Braves legend, who died Friday at the age of 86, made history while receiving death threats and hate mail on the way to surpassing Ruth in the record books late in his Hall of Fame career, which spanned from 1954-1976.
“I didn’t read most of them, but I wanted to have them as reminders,” Aaron later wrote in his autobiography “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story.”
“I kept feeling more and more strongly that I had to break the record not only for myself and for Jackie Robinson and for black people, but also to strike back at the vicious little people who wanted to keep me from doing it. All that hatred left a deep scar on me.
“I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country. I had nowhere to go except home and to the ballpark, home and to the ballpark. I was a prisoner in my own apartment. … That whole period, I lived like a guy in a fishbowl, swimming from side to side with nowhere to go, watching everybody watch me.
“I resented it, and I still resent it. It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life, and instead it was hell. I’m proud of the home run record, but I don’t talk about it because it brings back too many unpleasant memories.”
Aaron broke Ruth’s record on April 8, 1974 at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium against Al Downing and the Dodgers. Four days earlier, in Cincinnati, he had homered in his first at-bat of the season to tie Ruth at 714.
On the Dodgers broadcast for Aaron’s 715th home run, Vin Scully took note of the momentous occasion — both for baseball and society.
“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,” Scully said. “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. … 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.”
Aaron reportedly received 930,000 pieces of mail in 1973 — the year before he broke Ruth’s record — with enough including threats that the FBI got involved to protect him and his family.
After finishing his remarkable career with 755 home runs, Aaron later spoke of how he was able to compartmentalize his play on the field and the vitriol he faced off of it.
“In spite of all of the things that I went through … I’ve always been able to separate the two,” Aaron said in a 2014 interview with CNN. “I always felt like once I put the uniform on and once I got on the playing field, that I could separate the two — an evil letter I got the day before or even 20 minutes before — that I could also concentrate on what I had to do as far as trying to watch a fastball, somebody throwing the ball 90 mph, rather than worrying about a letter somebody sent.”