On this day 40 years ago Henry Aaron became the new all-time home run champion. It was long thought that no one would ever top Babe Ruth’s 714 but in the early 70’s all the sudden the unreachable seemed within reach. Henry Aaron without a lot of attention was making a run at the record.
Henry Aaron was a quiet and reserved ballplayer. He lived in the shadow of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. He wasn’t dramatic, he just made the plays. His home runs weren’t tape measure ones they were home runs that cleared the fence. He was underrated by the public but National League pitchers who called him “Bad Henry” knew how great he was.
Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 and had to endure a long winter wait. There were threats on his life. He wondered if he would live to break the record. The 1974 finally arrived and on Opening Day in Cincinnati, Aaron tied the record with a home run off of the Reds Jack Billingham. After the 3 game series in Cincinnati it was back home to Atlanta.
The game I remember well. It was on Monday Night Baseball. This was in the days before every game was televised. I remember at school that day having a difficult time paying much attention to my work. All I was thinking about was the game that night. You just sensed that Aaron was going to break the RuthRecord that night before a national audience.
The Braves were playing the Dodgers that night. The Dodgers were sending veteran Al Downing out to pitch. There was pre-game celebrations. I have to note I could remember seeing the Governor of Georgia. Who was this guy with all the teeth? I had my first glimpse of future President Jimmy Carter. I won’t get into that.
Aaron walked in his first trip to the plate. In the 4th he came up again and he did it! A fly ball to deep left field. Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner tried to climb the fence to snag the ball but to no avail. We had a new all time home run champion. In the Braves bullpen a relief pitcher named Tom House retrieved the ball and ran it in to Henry. As Henry rounded third base two crazy young adults ran out onto the field and ran to Aaron.
The game was stopped and there was a ceremony honoring Henry and his achievement. I recall thinking Aaron looked like the weight of the world was just lifted off his shoulders.
Henry Aaron would end his career with 755 home runs. To me he is still the all-time home run champion. Barry Bonds is the False King. He cheated. It wasn’t until he made his successful run at the home run title that Aaron got the proper recognition he deserved. I recall some old timer from that time, I can’t recall who it was but when asked what the difference was between Mays and Aaron said- “Mays never hit a cut off man and Aaron never missed one.” If you were going to pay to watch one play, Mays would have been the more exciting one to watch but as far as results Henry Aaron was just as great.
Monday April 8th, 1974 is a day I will never forget. It was also a great day not only in baseball history but American history. A black man from Alabama had beaten the most cherished record in American sports held by possibly the most loved and greatest figure in American sports and he did it in Atlanta, Georgia, the heart of the old Confederacy.