Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run broke a record that many had thought would never be broken, and Aaron used the position of influence he gained with his achievement to argue for fairer treatment of minorities.

Summary of Event

Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson Thomson, Bobby broke his leg during spring training in 1954, and twenty-year-old Hank Aaron, who was expecting to play another year in the team’s minor-league system, was assigned to play left field in Thomson’s place. Forty years earlier, in 1914, Babe Ruth broke into the big leagues, playing in five games for the Boston Red Sox. Ruth made the home run a central offensive weapon in baseball. In 1914, Frank Baker Baker, Frank led the American League in home runs with 8; he had a career total of 94 when he retired in 1922, and he was known as “Home Run” Baker. In contrast, Ruth hit 59 home runs in 1921 and 60 in 1927. By the time Hank Aaron was two years old, Ruth had hit 714 home runs, far more than anyone else. It was a record that no one thought could be broken. African Americans;athletes Baseball Sports;baseball Major League Baseball;records [kw]Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record (Apr. 8, 1974) [kw]Ruth’s Home Run Record, Aaron Breaks (Apr. 8, 1974) [kw]Home Run Record, Aaron Breaks Ruth’s (Apr. 8, 1974) [kw]Record, Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run (Apr. 8, 1974) African Americans;athletes Baseball Sports;baseball Major League Baseball;records [g]North America;Apr. 8, 1974: Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record[01580] [g]United States;Apr. 8, 1974: Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record[01580] [c]Sports;Apr. 8, 1974: Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record[01580] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 8, 1974: Aaron Breaks Ruth’s Home Run Record[01580] Aaron, Hank Ruth, Babe Downing, Al Mathews, Eddie

Certainly, no one thought Aaron would break that record. He was a highly regarded hitter, but he was known as a line-drive hitter, not one who lofted towering home runs as Babe Ruth did. It was not that Ruth and other home run hitters hit the ball any harder than Aaron did; rather, the blistering line drives Aaron hit were expected to stay in the ballpark for doubles and triples, not carry out of the park for home runs. Aaron’s line drives were different, however; an infielder might just miss a leaping catch of an Aaron shot, and the outfielder behind him might watch it clear the fence for a home run. In 1957, his fourth year with the Braves, Aaron led the National League in home runs with 44. Still, he received little attention as a threat to Ruth’s 714 until he passed 500 and began to approach 600, showing no sign of slowing down.

By that time, the Braves had left Milwaukee for Atlanta, Georgia, and around then, Aaron began receiving negative mail from people who were upset that Aaron, an African American, might break the record established by baseball legend Ruth, a white man. In 1947, just seven years before Aaron joined the Braves, Jackie Robinson Robinson, Jackie had become the first African American to play on a major-league baseball team. Aaron had grown up in Mobile, Alabama, and he was among the first blacks to play in the South Atlantic League, in the heart of the segregationist South, so he had firsthand knowledge of southern racial attitudes. Black players could not stay at the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, or drink from the same water fountains as the white players. None of Aaron’s background, however, fully prepared him for the abuse he endured as he neared Ruth’s record.

U.S. president Gerald R. Ford and baseball players Hank Aaron and Pete Rose (left to right) talk before the opening day game in which Aaron hit his 714th career home run to tie Babe Ruth’s record.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Some letter writers threatened Aaron that he would be killed if he did not retire or if he approached Ruth’s record. Others threatened Aaron’s family. The letters came from northerners and southerners alike. The authorities took the threats seriously and gave Aaron and his family members special protection, although it must have been clear to everyone that no amount of security could completely ensure their safety. Despite the concerns he must have had for his own safety and that of his family, Aaron kept producing on the field. He played in fewer games each year, a concession to advancing age, but his batting average, runs scored, and runs batted in, as well as his home run totals, held near the exceptional levels he had always produced. Rather than responding in kind to the abuse, Aaron let his performance speak for him.

In the next-to-last Braves game of 1973, Aaron hit the 713th home run of his career and his 40th of the year. He had three hits the next day, to push his batting average over .300, but all were singles, so Ruth’s record had to wait until 1974. Still, 1973 was a stellar year for Aaron, with 40 home runs, a .301 batting average, 84 runs scored, and 96 runs batted in, all in just 120 games. The disturbing mail continued through the winter off-season, but its effects were mitigated somewhat by the supportive letters that began to pour in after it became widely known that Aaron was receiving hate mail. The positive letters, many from children, far outnumbered the negative.

The 1974 baseball season began in controversy. Eddie Mathews, manager of the Atlanta Braves, shared a big part of Aaron’s baseball history. The two had been teammates for thirteen years, batting next to each other in most games, each making the other a better hitter. Even by the beginning of the twenty-first century, these two men still held the record for the most career home runs by two players on the same team. Mathews had planned to keep Aaron out of the lineup for the season-opening games in Cincinnati so that he could break the record at a home game in Atlanta, but the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, Kuhn, Bowie ordered Aaron to play in at least two of the three Cincinnati games. Aaron started in the opening game. Facing Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Billingham Billingham, Jack with two runners on and one out in the first inning, Aaron watched three balls and one strike go by. Billingham then threw a low, hard pitch that Aaron lined over the wall for his 714th career home run. Aaron hit no more home runs in Cincinnati; he sat out the second game and batted three times without a hit in the third. That set the stage for eleven straight games in Atlanta.

In the second inning of the first game in Atlanta, Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers walked Aaron without giving him a pitch to hit. Aaron batted again in the fourth inning, with two outs and a runner on first. Downing bounced the first pitch at the plate for ball one. The next pitch he threw was a low slider, closer to the middle of home plate than he wanted it to be. Aaron’s legendary wrists snapped the bat around, the shortstop started to jump but never finished the effort, and the left fielder started for the wall to make a leaping attempt of his own, but that effort too was left incomplete. Braves relief pitcher Tom House House, Tom caught number 715 in the Atlanta bullpen. Aaron circled the bases, accompanied part of the way by two college-age men who were quickly removed from the field. He was greeted at the plate by his teammates, his mother (who hugged him so tightly he remarked later that he did not realize she was so strong), and House, who handed him the ball.

Significance

Aaron hit 40 more home runs before he retired, ending his career with 755—a Major League Baseball record that stood for decades. Aaron also long held the career records for most runs batted in, most extra-base hits, and most total bases and was, ironically, in a tie with Babe Ruth for third place in runs scored. He finished with a career batting average of .305. It was, however, the 715th home run more than any other accomplishment that put Aaron in a position to lobby for more opportunities for black baseball players in management positions and for black people in other venues. In addition, the events surrounding Aaron’s pursuit of that 715th home run, especially the racist letters he received and the public’s response with even more letters of support, made important inroads into the racial divide that still troubles the United States. That division may be a little less deep because of the courageous and gracious example of Hank Aaron as he strove to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. African Americans;athletes Baseball Sports;baseball Major League Baseball;records

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aaron, Henry, with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Gives insight into Aaron’s feelings throughout the home run chase and other aspects of his life. Wheeler’s introduction to each chapter puts the events into a broader context. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kappes, Serena. Hank Aaron. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2006. Provides a brief summary of Aaron’s career. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanton, Tom. Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Argues that Aaron’s pursuit of the record home run exposed hidden bigotry in American society and ultimately improved race relations in the United States. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolan, Sandy. Me and Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-Five Years Later. New York: Free Press, 2000. Reports the impressions of a boy who sent an encouraging letter to Aaron during the home run chase and the interactions between the two men later in life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vascellaro, Charlie. Hank Aaron: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Presents analysis of Aaron’s life and career. Includes chronology, photographs, bibliography, and index.

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