The Atlanta Braves, with help from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, took time before playing their home opener to mark the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run, belted by the then-40-year-old slugger on April 8, 1974. The blast broke the career home run record held by Babe Ruth, whose previous record of 714 home runs stood for 39 years.
The Braves took on the New York Mets Tuesday at Turner Field in Atlanta, the ballpark where Atlanta has played home games since 1997. But Aaron hit his record-breaking home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which has long since been torn down and replaced by a parking lot across the street from the current Atlanta Braves ballpark.
But the actual spot where the historic home run landed remains marked by a monument, an actual piece of the outfield wall from the old stadium.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, Aaron — who has remained as a front office executive in the Atlanta Braves organization since his retirement as a player in 1976 — thanked Braves fans “for all your kindness all these many years.”
Selig told the crowd that Hank Aaron was “ideally suited to become Babe Ruth’s heir.”
But in 1973 and 1974 a large segment of America would not have agreed, for one reason alone: the color of Hank Aaron’s skin.
After Aaron finished the Atlanta Braves 1973 season with 713 total career home runs and it became clear he would pass Ruth’s record early in the 1974 season, Aaron was barraged with hate mail and death threats. In fact, according to the U.S. Post Office, the nearly one million letters received by Hank Aaron were a record for any single American who was not a politician.
But a huge percentage of those letters contained racist attacks on Hank Aaron. The Atanta Braves organization kept many of the letters, and will put a selection on display at Emory University starting April 24.
One sadly typical letter read, “Dear Mr. N*****, I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids a n***** did it?”
Aaron began his career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, but when the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron feared he and other black players would face racism, and he was right. Aaron’s wife reported that fans often shouted “n******” at him from the stands.
The Atlanta Braves’ opponent that night 40 years ago was the Los Angeles Dodgers and their pitcher was their standout lefthander Al Downing, who later said he threw Aaron a sinkerball that didn’t sink.