Baseball legend Henry Aaron, whose 755 career home runs made him baseball’s all-time home run leader for 33-years, finished the 1973 Major League baseball season with 713 career home runs.
At that time, one “dinger” short of Babe Ruth’s lifetime record of 714 home runs.
The number “714” made so revered by Ruth in sports and popular culture that if you can think of a more significant numeral in sports lore, I’d love to hear it.
Though Henry only needed one home run to tie THE Babe’s record and two to make the record his own “Hammerin’ Hank,” as he was often referred, was not sure he was going to make it.
Aaron fit the type to be America’s hero and home run champion. A clean cut man from rural Alabama, Aaron had remarkable skills on the field. He was handsome and smart and at age 41 a star in America’s National Pastime. And he had been for 21-years, making it to the majors in 1954 at age 19.
But Henry Aaron was black.
And in 1974 Atlanta and the United States as a whole, that was enough to not want this man who hit the ball so hard they had to call him “Hammer,” to be the all-time home run champ.
Letter! We Get Letters!
Racists who did not want to a black man break the revered record made their hatred known.
The FBI and Aaron’s own fortitude kept Hank and his family alive during the off-season. On opening day of the 1974 baseball season, THE Hammer hit his Ruth-tying 714th “tater.”
April 8, 1974
Despite the strain of all that hatred (which Aaron never spoke of at that time), Henry found the strength to step away from the safety of the dugout and into the batters box. He had read the letters from those who threatened sniper fire yet stood there. Alone. At home plate in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium.
When Dodger pitching ace Al Downing released his 4th inning pitch to Aaron, he could have had no idea that their lives would be forever linked through history. Forever Downing would be the man who gave up THE home run.
Already at 11-years old I was a baseball and Henry Aaron fan so I was watching the game. My 20-inch (a guess) black and white with rabbit ears more like a radio than what you think of when I say “TV” now. But I squinted as I watched the new home run champ hit his dinger.
The great baseball announcer Vin Scully doing the play-by-play said, “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south.”
I always loved Vin. Called it like he saw it. But that was only at the ballpark. Henry knew what the country thought of him.
He would hammer 755 home runs in total over his 25-year career. His record standing until Barry Bonds had cheated enough that on August 7, 2007, his steroid-engorged arms pushed his lies and his 756th home run into the San Francisco night.
THE One True King
Circumstance was not good to Henry Aaron. Racism and the bias of baseball theologians who did not want to accept that the great Babe Ruth’s record had been bested by anybody, ensured that Aaron would never get the respect he deserves.
At the time of his retirement Aaron held the record for the most career home runs, was second all-time in career hits, first in runs-batted-in and first in total at-bats, plate appearances and most total bases. Forty-five years after his retirement, two of those records still stand.
Yet many still consider Babe Ruth to be the home run champ.
Many baseball fans still make excuses for why Babe Ruth is still the home run king in their eyes. “He did it in fewer years than Aaron!” many argued. “With far-fewer opportunities at-bat!”
Which are both true Though not relevant.
And unfair to Henry Aaron.
When Bonds cheated his way to the record in 2007, Aaron was treated unfairly again. This time by a baseball aristocracy who ignored Bonds’ cheating and allowed his new record to stand. The man who fairly hit more home runs than any human ever, relegated to number two.
Which is the position Aaron held on baseball’s list of career home run leaders when he died on January 22 of this year.
Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson and countless others have learned the lesson that in sports (as it should be in life), if you didn’t run the race fairly you didn’t run it at all. It’s a fraud to fairness, and the great Henry Aaron that a cheaters name sits above his.
Henry Aaron is baseball’s all-time home run leader. And baseball’s failure to address this issue when they allow steroid-enhanced home run totals to stand, does not change my thinking. Bonds’ ill-gotten dingers should be erased from the record books, as if they never happened.
Because they never did!
Long live THE King!