Now that we’ve just celebrated Hank Aaron’s 80th birthday, don’t go anywhere. We are going to keep celebrating No. 44. This season will mark the 40th anniversary of the year Hammerin’ Hank quickly tied and passed Babe Ruth’s iconic home run record, on his way to 755 career homers and baseball immortality.
Aaron wasted no time in 1974, tying Ruth in his first at-bat of Opening Day at Riverfront Park in Cincinnati on April 4. It was the only game scheduled that day, as the Reds had the honor of opening first, a day before others. On a 3-and-1 pitch from Reds starter Jack Billingham, with two runners on, Aaron drove a shot over the head of left fielder Pete Rose and toward the bunting in left-center, beyond the wall for No. 714. In the photo above, that’s future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench behind the plate and four-time World Series umpire Ed Vargo, both eyeing the flight of the historic ball. Watch:
“I’m just glad it’s almost over with,” Aaron quipped when given the microphone to say a few words to the crowd after an on-field presentation. Amid the laughter in the ballpark at that time, few could possibly know exactly how much Aaron meant what he said. He would break Ruth’s record two games later back home in Atlanta, and the world would learn what degree of hate this former Negro Leaguer from Mobile, Ala., had endured behind the scenes on the way to professional sport’s greatest individual record — through piles of mail filled with threats and racial slurs. Aaron rose above it, having a profound impact on new generations that goes on today, and he plays a part in every World Series with his presentation of the Hank Aaron Award for the top offensive performers in each league.
“It’s a great thing to be the man who hit the most home run, but it’s a greater thing to be the man who did the most with the home runs he hit,” Aaron said later in his biography “I Had A Hammer.” “So as long as there’s a chance that maybe I can hammer out a little justice now and then, or a little opportunity here and there, I intend to do as I always have — keep swinging.”
The 2014 Braves open the regular season March 31 at Milwaukee, and their home opener is April 8 against the Mets. Who should be No. 43 in our countdown? Offer your suggestions in the comments below and make plans to see some games. MLB Schedule | Order Tickets