Never one seek media attention or personal accolades, Henry (Hank) Aaron often let his bat do the talking. “I never smile when I have a bat in my hands. That's when you've got to be serious. When I get out on the field, nothing's a joke to me. I don't feel like I should walk around with a smile on my face,” Aaron said.
He was the subject of intense media scrutiny in 1973-74 when he approached Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record. Aaron received more than 10,000 letters (most of them hate mail and even death threats) during the off-season claiming he should not break the record.
Ever the ultimate professional and gentleman, he ignored the insults and slurs and went about the opening season in 1974. On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Ruth's record and in doing so, received the undying support of the fans.
The moment was so big that even the opposing pitcher had to be prepped. “There was a script," said Al Downing, the Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher that night. "Basically, what I'd been informed of was that when Hank finished rounding the bases, I was to step aside. There was going to be a ceremony, a few speeches, then the game would resume."
Of course, Downing had no intention of surrendering the milestone long ball when he took the mound that night. But he, like the rest of the 53,775 in the seats that night, wasn't shocked when Aaron snapped his powerful wrists and launched a 1-0 fastball over the 385-foot left field fence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
All these years later, Aaron discusses No. 715 infrequently. Those close to Aaron (who retired with 755 homers) say the scars of the chase have become less prominent. But whether he truly feels at peace with his memories is another question entirely.
Hank at the 30th Anniversary of #715
"I just hope no one (has) to go through what I went through," Aaron said during the 2002 season. "It was inhuman and uncalled for. Every single day I was confronted with it, whether it was the letters I received or the newspaper articles guys wrote."
Aaron, a gentleman to the core, has said that he has no problem with someone eclipsing the 755 home run mark – in fact he knew it would happen eventually. “If anybody is going to break my record, I want it to be Barry Bonds,” Aaron has been quoted as saying. “Barry is the most powerful hitter major league baseball has ever seen.”
When asked if he will be there when Bonds hits number 756, Aaron explained he doesn’t want to take the spotlight on what should be “someone else’s day.”