It was April 8, 1974 when baseball’s greatest record was finally surpassed and overtaken. Henry Louis Aaron, better known as Hank, hit his 715th career home run. His Atlanta Braves faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in a game at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Aaron took a supposed sinker from pitcher Al Downing over the left center-field fence.
Aaron ended the previous season stuck on 713 home runs, two shy of breaking the record. He endured an entire next winter filled with racially charged hate mail from fans who weren’t accepting of a black home-run king. Because of this, Aaron traveled with bodyguards and police protection on many road trips.
“Thank God it’s over,” said Aaron in a post-game interview. The angst Aaron felt chasing down such an iconic record had finally disappeared.
This is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but let’s consider the context in which it was done. America was still not so enlightened when it came to race. Being in the South sure didn’t lessen these racial tensions that still very much existed. Aaron chased the record with such dignity and poise under immense pressure and hatred from many he came in contact with.
Imagine Aaron’s feelings after he hit the record-breaking home run. The triumph of his accomplishment coupled with the fear of the fans running out onto the field toward him. After all of the hate mail and threats to see two white men running right at him as he circled the bases. The mix of emotion as he went through his home-run trot had to be overwhelming. No wonder he was glad it was over.
Barry Bonds went on to pass Aaron on the all-time home-run list, and this is where the debate begins. Baseball fans typically fall into one of two categories: those who think Bonds is the home-run champ, and those who think Aaron still is.
Bonds not only played in an era that was “juiced,” but was linked to using steroids himself. Many even say his home-run record should have an asterisk explaining and discounting his record.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver captured the hollowness of the record when he said in advance of 756, “It’s a shame that after Bonds breaks the record the conversation will go, ‘Barry is the all-time home-run hitter, but . . .’ This record deserves more than that. With Henry Aaron, there were no buts.”
Barry Bonds may have hit more balls over outfield fences in his career than Hank Aaron, but baseball has only one true home-run king. Whether or not Aaron’s name is atop the all-time list is irrelevant. What Aaron went through as a black man at that time was absolutely remarkable. It is hard enough to hit a major league fastball, but the scrutiny under which he did it is significant.
What belongs to Bonds in the official sense is embodied by Aaron in many other ways, especially in the matter of fair play and with the grace Aaron went about his business.
Now, 40 years removed from that night in Georgia, Hank and his record are more admirable than ever. Bonds has more home runs, but true greatness and authenticity belong to Hank Aaron.