On April 4, 1974 Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron of the Atlanta Braves hit home run number 714 tying him for first place with Babe Ruth. The record that many fans believed unbreakable was now one swing away from being broken. And the long ordeal of one of the games greatest players was almost over.
Aaron had come a long way to that historic opening day in Cincinnati against the Reds. He had began his professional career at age 18 with the Negro League’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952. The Braves signed him that season and he joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. Twenty years later, Hank Aaron was the last man left from the Negro Leagues playing in the majors.
As fate would have it Aaron would end the 1973 season one short of the record with 713 home runs. This led to an entire off season of waiting for fans of the game. It also led to an off season filled with hate mail and death threats for Aaron and his family. Through it all Aaron kept to himself and handled everything that came his way with class and dignity. In his book ‘I Had a Hammer’ Hank Aaron writes that he spent the whole winter thinking about how he was going to hit opening day Reds starter Jack Billingham.
But the off season was not without controversy for Aaron or the Braves. Unlike today where the schedule probably would be arranged so that Atlanta would open the season at home, the Braves were scheduled to travel to Cincinnati for three games. This meant that if Aaron played there was a good chance he could break the record before the home opener. Braves owner Bill Bartholomay told Aaron that the Braves were going to hold him out until the team returned to Atlanta. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn overruled him and Hank Aaron had to play.
When opening day 1974 arrived the baseball world was ready and so was Aaron. Since Cincinnati was the oldest team in baseball they opened the season one day before everyone else. So the Atlanta-Cincinnati game was the only one in town. The entire focus of the sports world would be on Aaron and whenever he came to the plate television stations preempted programs to broadcast his at bats live.
Since April 4 was the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hank Aaron asked if there could be a moment of silence for the slain civil rights leader. His request was denied.
Commissioner Kuhn may have denied Aaron, but Jack Billingham could not. After six months of waiting Aaron wasted no time tying the record. In his first at bat he worked the count to three balls and one strike. Then on the fifth pitch he turned on a fast ball and hit a drive to left field. It cleared the fence and Babe Ruth had company at the top.
As the great ones often do, Hank Aaron had risen to the occasion.