Aaron reflects on 40 years since breaking Ruth's mark
All-time great slugger hit career homer No. 715 in Atlanta on April 8, 1974
ATLANTA -- Forty years later, Hank Aaron appreciates the opportunity to reminisce without having to deal with the anger, fear and unwanted pressure that consumed him as he created what still stands as one of the most celebrated moments in baseball history.
Baseball fans have long viewed footage of the historic home run Aaron hit on April 8, 1974, and recognized it as the moment Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" record was broken.
But as Aaron reflects on the momentous home run he sent over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium's left-field wall on that April night 40 years ago, he does not remember the celebratory joy it created as much as he does the relief that he felt after going through the previous year being subjected to hate mail, racist threats and escalated media scrutiny.
"Sometimes you think about it, and it was a moment you should have been enjoying yourself," Aaron said. "Then you look back, and it wasn't that way, because there were so many other things that were involved in life. All the things that people were talking about, hateful things."
Time has not necessarily healed all of the wounds created by the threats and hateful remarks that were hurled in Aaron's direction as he neared Ruth's record. But at 80 years old, "The Hammer" now at least savors the fact that there were also many fans who celebrated the accomplishment that will once again draw the baseball world's attention this week.
The Braves recognized the 40th anniversary of Aaron's historic 715th home run before Tuesday's home opener against the Mets. Having had a chance to recover from the fractured left hip he suffered in February, Aaron was present to reminisce with his friends and former teammates who also attended.
"Forty years is a long time," Aaron said. "You think about it and say, 'Well, there is no way 40 years have passed that quickly.' But it's here. I'm excited about it."
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig attended Tuesday's event to honor his close friend. Selig idolized Aaron during his youth as a Milwaukee Braves fan, and he later employed Aaron while he was the owner of the Brewers. Over the decades, the two have developed a close bond and friendship.
Others in attendance include four men -- Al Downing, Dusty Baker, Darrell Evans and Tom House -- who had a close look at the historic home run. While Downing, then a Dodgers lefty, was the pitcher who served up the homer, Baker was on deck and Evans was on first base. House caught the ball after it sailed into the Braves' bullpen.
"There are so many things that happened in that moment," Aaron said. "You talk about the home run, and you talk about being isolated to where you don't feel a part of your ballclub."
Braves director of team travel and clubhouse services Bill Acree remembers Aaron as being "one of the most normal guys in the clubhouse you would have ever seen." But Acree also has memories of how the legendary slugger was denied the opportunity to continue laughing and interacting with his teammates for a little more than a year before he broke the record.
Once it became apparent that he might pass Ruth's mark, Aaron was besieged with media attention and threats made against him and his family. In response, he was placed under the watchful eyes of a bodyguard and forced to stay at a different hotel than his teammates.
"It wasn't a lot of fun for him," Acree said. "It was fun for the people around it. It wasn't fun for the people in the middle of it."
As the Braves opened the 1974 season in Cincinnati, thoughts of keeping Aaron out of the lineup to ensure he broke the record in Atlanta were trumped by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's edict that Aaron play in at least two of the three games scheduled that opening week against the Reds. Aaron matched Ruth's record when he hit his 714th career home run during his first plate appearance on Opening Day. As fate would have it, he did not go deep during the other five at-bats he recorded in Cincinnati that week.
Baker recently told MLB.com that Aaron told him he was going to homer as he strolled toward the plate to face Downing in the fourth inning of Atlanta's home opener. While he proved prophetic, Aaron was not making a boastful prediction. He was simply determined to end the mentally draining stretch during which he felt isolated and fearful of what could happen to his friends and family members.
"I think I made that remark to Dusty maybe three or four times," Aaron said. "I just felt within myself that before the night was over, I was going to hit a home run."
Aaron would hit 40 more home runs during the remainder of his career, which concluded where it began, in Milwaukee, during a two-year stint with the Brewers, who came into existence after the Braves moved to Atlanta.
Aaron's record of 755 career home runs was bested in 2007 by Barry Bonds, who finished with 762 homers and has been one of the most scrutinized players to have played during the era of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.
While Aaron is appreciative of the fact that some fans still recognize him as baseball's all-time home run king, he believes his crowning achievement was driving in more runs (2,297) than any other player in baseball history. He also was a 24-time All-Star who holds the all-time records for extra-base hits and total bases. Pete Rose and Ty Cobb are the only men who recorded more hits than Aaron's 3,771.
Aaron forever will be recognized as the man who passed the Babe. But over the course of the past four decades, baseball fans also have fittingly gained a greater appreciation for the fact that Aaron's status as one of the game's all-time greats is a product of much more than his home run total.
"It means an awful lot to me," Aaron said. "I'm not one to go around bragging about certain things. I played the game because I loved the game. It was a great challenge to me. I'm quite thrilled that people, for the first time, have seen fit that whatever [I] did should be appreciated. It makes me feel good."