When Babe Ruth hit his last home run, number 714, in 1935, the entire baseball world thought that his feat could never be accomplished in another lifetime. After all, ‘The Babe’ was considered by many to be the finest clean up hitter of all time and his was an inspirational story. But like so many world records and personal best that had been set since, it was meant to be broken. The manner in which this record was to be rewritten came from an unlikely source that became a legend and inspirational story on its own.
Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5th 1934. He was one year old was ‘The Babe’ stroke number 714 to set his long standing record. Aaron was raised in poverty where by his family was large and very poor. What makes this such an inspirational story for all generation of sportsmen and sports fan is that Aaron was a black. To some many racist of that era, for a black to surpass the record set by ‘The Babe’ seemed unthinkable. Perhaps that’s where romance of this inspirational story is set. When Aaron was young, he could not afford baseball equipment. Hence, he would make his own bats and swung at bottle caps. Growing up in a farm picking cotton gave him strong hands and arms which naturally carried into his already passionate desire to play ball.
Aaron started his professional baseball career and inspirational story with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League and in the minor leagues, Aaron started his major league career in 1954. (He is the last Negro league baseball player to have played in the major leagues.) He played 21 seasons with the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves in the National League, and his last two years (1975-76) with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League.
His career and inspirational story in the Major Leagues was relatively quiet. But slowly and steadily he was building up his numbers to surpass 714. He hit 13 in 1954 during his first major league year. He hit 27 the next year, 26 the year after that, then 44 in 1957. Forty home runs in 1960. Forty-five in 1962. Forty-four in 1963, again in 1966, and yet again in 1969. Forty-seven in 1971. Quietly, relentlessly, Aaron pursued the ghost of arguably baseball’s greatest player. Then the 1973 season ended, and the 39-year-old Aaron, who hit 40 home runs that year, had 713 for his career, one shy of the record.
The off-season of 1973 into 1974 was filled with extreme emotions for Aaron and his family in this inspirational story. During the winter, that year, they received thousands of genuine supporters wishing him well and all the best. Many of these were rooting for Aaron to beat Babe Ruth’s record finally. They felt it was the year that this could be achieved. Hank was still belting home runs with ease at this stage, unlike ‘The Babe’, who by this stage of his career was nothing more than an alcoholic morass due to his excessive lifestyle.
That, winter, Aaron also received his share of hate mail, mainly from racists who cannot fathom the fact that a black man is about to set a record that a white supremist had set way back in 1935. Four decades of white dominance in baseball was coming to an end. To Aaron, this hate mail was actually a source of inspiration. Although he feared for his family’s and his life, he never really departed from his desire to keep swing away. In his own words, “I can’t go into hibernation now,” he said at the end of the ’73 season. “I can’t hide. I’ve said that all I have to do to break Babe Ruth’s record is to stay alive, but I’ve got to live my life.” His inspirational story continued.
In the first game of the 1974 season at Cincinnati, Aaron struck number 714 out of the ball park, tying Babe Ruth’s all time record. He would have another two more games at Cincinnati, but his manager and Aaron wanted the record to be eclipse at their home ground, so his manager deliberately benched him for Game 2 in Cincinnati. Unfortunately this did not go down well with the commissioner of baseball, who claimed that this was contrary to the spirit of the game. Aaron started Game 3 of the series but was unable to hit the record breaker. He would get the chance to do that at his own stadium to establish his inspirational story.
On Monday night, April 8, Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem. Fireworks burst over the largest crowd Atlanta Stadium had held. At 9:07 p.m., in front of 53,775 and a national television audience, in his second at-bat but on his first swing of the evening, Aaron shattered the record that had stood for 39 years. The game was interrupted for 11 minutes for all the well wishing fanfare. In the process of surpassing 714, hank also quietly passed another landmark in baseball. Aaron scored the 2,063rd run of his career, putting him one ahead of Mays for the National League lead and behind Ty Cobb and Ruth overall.
Thus ended this inspirational story and historic chase for one of baseball most cherished records of all. Hank Aaron would go on to hit number 755 which would not be broken until 2007 by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. But that record will forever be tarnished by Bonds’ alleged use of drugs.