The night Aaron passed Ruth with HR No. 715

April 8th, 2024

A version of this story originally ran in February 2022.

When Babe Ruth hit his 714th and final home run on May 25, 1935, many in the baseball world thought his extraordinary career mark would never be broken. For 39 years, the Babe stood alone as baseball’s all-time home run king. Then, on April 8, 1974, Ruth passed the torch to a new record holder, Hank Aaron, who capped his remarkable career by toppling one of the most legendary records in the sports canon.

Aaron had been working toward this moment for 20 years. His first home run came in his rookie season, on April 23, 1954, with the Milwaukee Braves. Two decades later, the landscape of the sport had dramatically changed. The Braves had moved to Atlanta, the Dodgers and Giants had long since headed west, all 30 MLB teams were integrated and Aaron’s career stats had surpassed those of nearly every baseball legend. Except one.

On April 8, 1974, Aaron's Braves faced off against the Dodgers at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The opposing starter was Al Downing, a veteran who, like Aaron, was nearing the end of his career and, also like Aaron, wore No. 44. It had been a long winter for Aaron, who ended the 1973 season on the cusp of the record with 713 career home runs. He started off the next year with a bang by tying Ruth’s mark on Opening Day against the Reds.

Four days later, on a warm Georgia evening, history was hanging in the balance.

Atlanta jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second inning on an RBI double from center fielder (and future MLB manager) Dusty Baker, which scored Aaron after a leadoff walk. Los Angeles immediately responded with three runs in the third, including an RBI single from Downing (one of two RBIs he had all season) and a two-run double off the bat of center fielder Jim Wynn. The bottom of the fourth soon rolled around, with the Braves trailing, 3-1.

Leading off the frame, third baseman Darrell Evans reached on an error, bringing Aaron up to the plate as the potential tying run with a man on. The home crowd of 53,775 -- the largest crowd in the stadium’s history -- roared with anticipation as Hammerin’ Hank stepped into the box.

Aaron took a ball in the dirt to work a 1-0 count as the ballpark buzz intensified.

“And that just adds to the pressure,” said longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who was on the away mic that evening. “The crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional, and pitch his game.”

On the next pitch, Downing reared back and left one right over the middle of the plate. Aaron connected, drove the pitch over the left-center-field wall, and etched his name in baseball lore.

Braves announcer Milo Hamilton had the home call: “He’s sitting on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left center field. That ball is gonna be … outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!

“The fireworks are going! Henry Aaron is coming around third, his teammates are at home plate, and listen to this crowd!”

As Aaron circled the bases, two fans ran onto the field to congratulate him, creating one of the most indelible images in MLB history. Those fans were Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, who were only 17 years old when they witnessed the historic long ball. They were escorted out of the park by police soon after their moment with Aaron and spent the night in jail. However, both later got to reunite with Aaron, once in 1994 on the 20th anniversary of the home run and again in 2010.

After the hubbub surrounding Aaron’s accomplishment -- which included fireworks and an 11-minute ceremony -- died down and play resumed, Downing walked the next two batters and was subsequently removed from the game. The Braves scored two more runs in the inning to take a 5-3 lead en route to an eventual 7-4 victory. Aaron had two more at-bats, both ending in groundouts, before he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth.

“The thing that I remember most about that night was my mother,” Aaron said in a 2020 interview with Dan Patrick. “She was so enthused, she was so happy. When I hit the home run and got around the bases to home plate, she grabbed me, and I had never been hugged before in my life like that.”

After his momentous home run, Aaron hit 40 more dingers before retiring in 1976, with 755 career homers and his Hall of Fame candidacy sealed many times over. Downing outlasted him by one year, retiring at the end of the 1977 season. He and Aaron are forever linked in the annals of baseball, though Downing was on the short end of history that April night.

“Hank had a nice sense of humor,” Downing said after Aaron’s passing in 2021. “We talked and he told me, ‘I want to tell you, don’t you feel embarrassed by the fact that you gave up the home run. You have been a good pitcher your entire career and you don’t have to walk around with your head down.’ … Then he said he is glad it’s over with.”

Of all the impressive home runs that Hammerin’ Hank hit in his storied career, none were as celebrated and immortalized as No. 715.