Chasing the Babe
Its hard to imagine a professional athlete who models the phrase “slow and steady wins the race”, more than Henry (Hank) Aaron. Over the course of an amazing 23-year baseball career, Aaron accumulated some of Major League Baseball’s most prized individual records. Of the numerous records Aaron compiled, none held more historical significance than the all time homerun record he set on April 15th, 1974. With just one swing of his mighty bat, the “Hammer” solidified his place in baseball royalty forever. Lets now take a look at how Hank Aaron shocked the world, fighting off high fastballs…and racial inequalities along the way.
Hank started his baseball career in the Negro League, with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951. Aaron had a short stay with the Clowns, before leading them to a league World Series championship in 1952. After the championship, Aaron was recruited by the Milwaukie Braves of the Major League Baseball association. He played one year in the Braves’ farm system, before making his major league debut in 1954. Over the next 20 years, Aaron was the model of consistency, never finishing a season with less than 20 homeruns.
Due to playing in the relatively small baseball market of Atlanta during this time, Aaron did not receive the attention and respect that he truly deserved. Without things like the Internet, social media or even SportsCenter…Aaron, through most his career flew under the radar of the major media coverage. That is, until people began to see how close he was getting to Ruth’s all time homerun record.
The year prior to his all time homerun milestone, Aaron began receiving racially driven hate mail and death threats. The record, which was held by a white player for nearly 4 decades prior, held major significance to a segment of white fans; and seeing this record fall to a black player caused an enormous amount of tension directed at Aaron. So a chase that should have been filled with overwhelming excitement and anticipation was darkened a bit by the racial overtones of the times.
Aaron wasted no time tying Ruth’s mark of 714 homeruns, launching the first pitch he seen of the 1974 season, as the Braves visited the Cincinnati Reds. After sitting out the next game, and only playing part of the following game…the stage was set for Aaron to break the record back home in Atlanta. On April 8th, 1974 the Braves hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in their home opener. NBC broadcast the game, with Curt Gowdy handling the play-by-play. The game was also broadcast on the Brave’s radio network (Milo Hamilton, play-by-play) and on the Dodgers radio network (Vin Scully, play-by-play). In the bottom of the 4th inning, after walking in his first at bat, Aaron walked to the plate amongst more than 50,000 fans on their feet. Dodger’s pitcher Al Dowling, throws a 1-0 fastball to Aaron…and the rest is history.
Television coverage of the event shows the Dodger’s pitchers running in the bullpen, scrambling to be the one who retrieves the legendary number 715. The camera then quickly pans back to Aaron who is now circling the bases, as random fans run out on the field to give a pat on the back, as he trots towards home. The images of Aaron being mobbed by his teammates, fireworks lighting the Atlanta sky, and the embrace by his parents behind home plate are visions that even the most novice of sports fans can remember seeing.
While the Television coverage of the event had a special way of capturing ‘the moment’, radio, too, enhanced the event for sports fans. The legendary call by Milo Hamilton of the Brave’s radio network is one of the most recognizable calls in sports history…“Here’s the pitch by Dowling… swinging… there’s a drive into left-center field… that ball is gonna beeee… OUTTA HERE! IT’S GONE! IT’S 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time… and it’s HENRY AARON!” Even to this day, most videos of the homerun are accompanied by the Milo Hamilton play-by-play.
It’s important to note how the two different coverages (television and radio) were equally successful in capturing the moment. Those who had access to a television in 1974 would attest that nothing could have been better than actually seeing the event. While the thousand who listened to the broadcast on radio stations around the country would agree, letting their imaginations paint the picture had a unique way of remembering the moment.
Aaron’s record-breaking homerun was not only a joyous event for him, that we who know of it could only imagine, achieving the milestone came as more of a relief to “hammer’n Hank”. When asked how he felt about the record, Aaron replied “thank God its over.” It was clear that the enormous amount of coverage, coupled with the hate mail and death threats by racist bigots, had taken its toll on the slugger. But through it all, Aaron prevailed. He was an inspiration to all, both on and off the field; and a true hero in every sense of the word.
Here are the links to a few sites that helped in researching the story and stats behind my post: