Hammerin' Hank's 715th lives on
Aaron's shot to pass Ruth is still one of the greatest
ATLANTA -- Forty-one years ago, Major League baseball came to Atlanta for the first time.
This was no expansion team, however. The Braves moved from Milwaukee in 1966 and gave their new city instant credibility because of one man -- Henry Louis Aaron.
During the first two years the Braves were in Atlanta, they led the National League in home runs. They did it again in 1973, and we all know what happened in 1974.
Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs on April 8, 1974, and his subsequent jog around the bases is one of the lasting images in the history of baseball.
His final home run tally, 755, will be remembered even though it has now been passed by Barry Bonds. The significance of the shot off Al Downing will remain the same even if Aaron's 755 continues to move down the all-time list.
"I hope history doesn't miss the fact of what kind of a teammate and individual he was," said Del Crandall, who played with Aaron in Milwaukee from 1954-63. "He was just a great teammate. As great a star as he was, he didn't look for any privilege. He didn't look for us to cater to him. For his greatness, I think that says a lot."
At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Aaron didn't have the prototypical home run hitter's build, but Aaron came into the Majors slugging and never stopped. In his first full season, he collected 27 long balls, and would go on to hit between 24 and 47 in each of the next 18 seasons.
His 40 homers in 1973 left him two shy of breaking Ruth's record, which he did on the fourth game of the next season against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was Atlanta's first home game of the season and it changed the game forever.
Twenty-seven years earlier, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball. In 1974, racial tensions in the game and in the country were still high, especially in the South. Some Atlanta fans embraced Aaron, some fans shunned him and some sent death threats.
"There were problems everywhere and there were also good people in every city," Aaron said. "I really never felt any different in Atlanta than I did everywhere else."
That didn't change the fact that finally passing Ruth, a feat that came during Aaron's 21st season, was more a relief than something Aaron celebrated or reveled in. It also didn't change the fact that some fans still considered Ruth the all-time home run king, citing the probability that The Babe would have been even more prolific with the long ball during an era centered around offense.
"You think about it," Aaron said, "but you don't put much credence in it. When I was chasing Babe Ruth's record, there were people saying that he would have hit way more homers than me if he hadn't played in the Dead Ball Era. You're always going to have people making those kinds of arguments.
Aaron hit his 713th home run on Sept. 29, 1973, in the next-to-last game of the regular season. The 1974 season started with a road series in Cincinnati, and Aaron appeared ready to break the record right away, tying Ruth with No. 714 in his first at-bat of the season against Reds pitcher Jack Billingham.
Aaron wanted to sit out the series in Cincinnati, ensuring he would break the record in Atlanta. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn denied the request, however, ruling that Aaron would have to play at least two of the three games.
As fate would have it, though, Aaron would break the record at home anyway. He went homerless in his second game against the Reds before connecting on a 1-0 pitch in the bottom of the fourth inning against Al Downing, scoring Darrell Evans.
"That moment not only impacted this sport, but a nation," said Vin Scully, the Dodgers radio announcer who called No. 715. "Here was a black man being celebrated in the Deep South. It was so touching to see the affection and love he generated. All things that baseball needed, Henry gave it. He was a true hero.
"After he hit it, I said, 'It's gone,' and then I didn't say anything. What more was there to say? The crowd erupted and kept cheering. I got up and went to the back of the booth and had a cup of coffee while the crowd kept cheering and I didn't come back on until the level came down a little. I'm sure there has never been -- before or since -- a longer ovation."
The homer made a household name, if not an overnight celebrity, out of Downing. The Dodgers left-hander had finished third in Cy Young Award voting in 1971, when he enjoyed the only 20-win season of his 17-year career.
By 1974, Downing's career was nearing its end. While he had pitched 193 innings in 1973, he would never again reach even 100, and he was 5-6 in 1974, his last as a regular starter. His name will be forever linked to Aaron, just as Ralph Branca's is linked to Bobby Thomson and Ralph Terry's to Bill Mazeroski.
"When he hit the home run, what I most remember about it is that it was like he had hit a homer in Spring Training," Downing said. "The same trot. No grandstanding, throwing the bat in the air or anything like that. He ran around the bases like it was just another home run. After all the subsequent years, that's what sticks in my mind.
"Through the years, Hank has had occasions to discuss the event, and the interviewer would sometimes set up a question by trying to bad-mouth me. Hank would say, 'Wait a minute ... Al Downing was a good pitcher.' That's Aaron; he would never criticize you. He always gave you that respect."
Aaron's respect for his former players probably was due to the fact that Aaron struggled to gain respect from the general public, especially in the South, a segment of the population that didn't necessarily want to see a black man break the record of a national hero.
Aaron's legend has only grown since 1974, though. Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a season and he won just one Most Valuable Player Award. For those reasons, and the era in which he played, Aaron was never considered a slugger on the magnitude of Ruth, who set his record during a time that home runs were not the norm.
Still, Aaron's legacy is plenty secure. Always will be. The first 20 seasons of his career ensured that, and the night of April 8, 1974, cemented it.
"If you were to pick the prototype person to break the most famous record in professional sports, you know who it would be? Henry Aaron," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Why? Because of his class and his decency and his dignity. He has represented this sport so beautifully in every way."
Jeff Lutz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.