As Hank Aaron strode to the plate, the sellout crowd of 53,775 packed into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium rose as one. All across the United States, baseball fans stopped whatever they were doing and crouched a little closer to their glowing television screens. The umpire reached into his pocket and threw a specially marked baseball to Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Al Downing. It was only the fourth game of Atlanta’s season, but this was no ordinary at bat, for with just one swing the 40-year-old Aaron could break baseball’s most hallowed barrier—Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs.
The reserved Aaron’s calm countenance masked the pressure of the moment and the storm that had swirled around him for the better part of two years. Ruth became baseball’s all-time home run leader in 1921 when he belted the 139th round-tripper of his career. Baseball fans long thought Ruth’s final total of 714 was untouchable, and as Aaron closed in on the sport’s legendary icon, a vocal minority wanted to keep it that way. They sent Aaron letters stating that Ruth would always be the greatest home-run hitter who ever lived and beseeching the Atlanta right fielder not to surpass the Babe. “When my son turns the page in a record book and looks for home runs, and sees your name at the top of the list, he’s not going to care one bit about Babe Ruth,” one fan fretted.
More troubling, however, were the racist hate mail and death threats that began to arrive on Aaron’s doorstep on a daily basis from fans who didn’t want to see baseball’s most storied record in African American hands. He read the vile letters—at least the ones that the FBI didn’t confiscate—addressed to “Black Boy,” “Jungle Bunny” and worse. “Dear Brother Hank Aaron, I hope you join Brother Dr. Martin Luther King in that Heaven he spoke of,” read one missive. “Will I sneak a rifle into the upper deck or a .45 in the bleachers? I don’t know yet. But you know you will die unless you retire!” threatened one fan, while another promised, “My gun is watching your every Black move. This is no joke.”
In Aaron’s hometown of Mobile, Alabama, his parents received harassing phone calls. Kidnapping threats against his daughter caused FBI agents to go undercover as maintenance men at her college in Tennessee. An off-duty Atlanta police officer was assigned to be the ballplayer’s personal bodyguard, and the Atlanta Journal prepared Aaron’s obituary in case it had to be run at short notice. “It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography, “and instead it was hell.”
Although most of the mail sent to the Braves star wished him well, he used the venom-soaked letters as kindling to stoke his fire. Aaron, who started his career in the Negro Leagues and joined the Braves only seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, wrote in his autobiography that he was driven by “the sense of doing something for my race.” He believed the best way to honor Robinson’s legacy “was to become the all-time home run champion in the history of the game that had kept out Black people for more than sixty years.”
Aaron stood on the precipice of history as the 1974 season began. On his first swing on Opening Day, he launched a ball over the wall of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium to tie Ruth at 714 homers. Four days later, he was back in Atlanta for the team’s home opener. Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem, and Aaron’s father threw out the first pitch as the country watched on NBC, which pre-empted its normal Monday night prime-time lineup to broadcast the game. Aaron walked in his first at bat in the second inning and broke Willie Mays’ National League record for runs when he came around to score. Normally, the occasion would have been momentous, but compared to the home run chase, it was a mere footnote for the record books.
As the slugger stepped to the plate in the fourth inning, the tempest that surrounded him faded away. To Aaron, the focal point of the batter’s box was like the eye of a storm, a quiet sanctuary. He dug in and focused in on Downing, a veteran southpaw who had won 20 games in 1971 and surrendered Aaron’s 676th and 693rd home runs. Ball one. Downing went into the wind up again, and the ball spun out of his left hand. The pitcher’s sinker didn’t do much sinking, however, and Aaron struck the ball with his fluid, easy swing that belied his tremendous power. Aaron and the entire country watched as Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner retreated to the wall. When he could run no more, Buckner scaled the ballpark’s chain link fence, but he could only watch as the baseball sailed over his head and into the mitt of Braves relief pitcher Tom House in the bullpen.
Aaron floated around the bases. “Hammerin’ Hank” rarely smiled on his home-run trots, but on this occasion he couldn’t help it. Dodgers players extended their hands in congratulations. As Aaron’s cleats touched second base, he suddenly discovered he had an escort. Teenagers Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtney had leaped onto the field and ran alongside the new home-run king to shake his hand and pat him on the back before he reached third base. Given all the threats toward Aaron, his bodyguard considered pulling out his concealed pistol until he realized the fans meant no harm.
Aaron’s teammates mobbed him as he touched home plate. “Hammer, here it is!” shouted House, who had sprinted in from the bullpen to present his teammate with the historic home-run ball. Fireworks burst in the Georgia sky as Aaron’s mother gave him the tightest hug of his life. The future Hall of Famer shed tears, more out of relief than joy, as he told the crowd in a brief ceremony, “I’d just like to say to all the fans here this evening that I just thank God it’s all over with.”
Aaron retired in 1976 with 755 home runs, a record that stood until 2007 when Barry Bonds, tainted by allegations of using performance-enhancing drugs, broke it. However, much like baseball fans in the 1970s who still considered Ruth the greatest home-run hitter who ever lived, many present-day fans echo the feelings of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson who said Aaron remains “the people’s home run champion.” Aaron died on January 22, 2021, at age 86.