It was a glorious moment.
On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, previously thought unassailable, when he hit his 715th career home run. Aaron’s historic blast occurred during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves; it was the first home game of the 1974 season for the Braves.
When Aaron knocked an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence in the fourth inning to create a new home run record, he triggered a celebration with enough energy to power the state of Georgia. In the article “End of the Glorious Ordeal” in the April 15, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ron Fimrite wrote, “It ended in a carnival atmosphere that would have been more congenial to the man he surpassed as baseball’s alltime [sic] home-run champion.”
Indeed, Babe Ruth was gregarious with an appetite for life that could not be matched, measured, or modulated. Aaron, in contrast, had a quiet dignity. In the April 11, 1974 edition of the Atlanta Daily World, Charles E. Price wrote, “A player who dresses at the plate, waiting to get to the plate before adjusting his helmet, only to take an unassuming stance at the plate, Hank then has the appearance of any other player.”
Fimrite, too, opined on Aaron’s contrasting demeanor. “This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly. Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it. He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”
In his autobiography I Had A Hammer, Aaron recalled that he and his wife, Billy, hosted a party after the historic game. Before the party started, as he enjoyed some quiet, Aaron realized the true impact of his achievement. “When I was alone and the door was shut, I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through,” wrote Aaron. “At that moment, I knew what the past twenty-five years of my life had been all about. I had done something that nobody else in the world had ever done, and with it came a feeling that nobody else has ever had—not exactly, anyway. I didn’t feel a wild sense of joy. I didn’t feel like celebrating. But I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other in my life. I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time. I also felt a stream of tears running down my face.”
Hank Aaron began his major league career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954; the Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season. Aaron stayed with the Braves organization through the 1974 season, and then finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers. Aaron retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs. It remained the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007. Bonds retired after the 2007 season with 762 home runs.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2015.