While the first month of each new MLB season is loaded with excitement and full of promise for every major league player, April couldn’t come soon enough for MLB Home Run King Henry “Hank” Aaron, who ended the previous season on the brink of the game’s most legendary home run achievement.
Aaron Surpasses Ruth in April
The chase to pass Babe Ruth’s (then) all-time home run record of 714 reached a public frenzy in last days of the 1973 MLB season as 39-year-old “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron hit his 40th long-ball (career homer 713) on September 29, 1973 to draw within a single home run of Ruth’s record. "I can't recall a day this year or last when I did not hear the name of Babe Ruth,” Aaron said.
With one day left in the season, many expected Aaron to tie the record against the Houston Astros, led by manager Leo Durocher, who once was a roommate of Babe Ruth, but a paid attendance of 40,517 watched as Aaron was unable to tie the record.
Over the winter, Aaron endured death threats and a large assortment of racist hate mail from people who did not want to see a black man break Ruth's home run record. But he also received a massive flood of public support in response to the bigotry. Babe Ruth's widow, Claire Hodgson, even denounced the racists and declared that “The Babe would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron's attempt at the record.”
As the 1974 season began, Aaron's pursuit of the home run record caused a small controversy as the Braves prepared to open the season on the road in Cincinnati with a three game series. Braves management wanted him to break the record in Atlanta. Therefore, they were going to have Aaron sit out the first three games of the season. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that he had to play two out of three. He tied Babe Ruth's record in his very first at bat off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, but did not hit another home run in the series.
Thus, on April 8, 1974, Aaron returned to a record-setting Fulton Stadium crowd of 53,775 and a national TV audience tuned in to watch his attempt to surpass the Babe. Aaron hit career home run 715 in the 4th inning off Los Angeles pitcher Al Downing. The ball landed in the Braves bullpen where reliever Tom House caught it. While cannons were fired in celebration, two college students ran alongside Aaron around the base paths.
Hank’s mother Estella Aaron ran onto the field as well, and was quoted as saying "I knew my boy had a chance to do it. He takes care of himself and nothing comes in front of baseball for Henry (Aaron). Nothing. On days when he is feeling good, it's just too bad for the pitchers."