Apr 5, 2024 - News

Braves celebrate 50 years since Hank Aaron broke home run record

Hank Aaron at bat before hitting his 715h home run on April 8, 1974.

Hank Aaron at the plate before his record breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974. Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Next week, the Atlanta Braves will honor the 50th anniversary of legendary slugger Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home run record.

Why it matters: "Hammerin' Hank" surpassed Ruth's 714 record when he hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, in a city that, just months earlier, elected the Deep South's first Black mayor and was forging ahead with its slogan of the "City Too Busy To Hate."

Flashback: Former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, who tells Axios that she was at the record-breaking game with then-mayor Maynard Jackson and her ex-husband when Aaron reached that milestone, says witnessing that moment in history was "thrilling."

  • Franklin says she learned from Ambassador Andrew Young that sports and accomplishments made by Black people "became a unifying factor, certainly in the Black community … and in some cases, with the white community, even when they disagreed on politics or policy."
  • "People from all backgrounds were celebrating, especially in the African American community."

The big picture: Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center says Aaron's history-making home run — "a high drive into deep left-center field!" as called by broadcaster Vin Scully that night — ranks among the top moments in sports history.

  • "It's a moment that brought a lot of people together," he said. "He had to fight against people who did not want him to break the record of Babe Ruth for racial reasons. And he overcame that and just powered on through."

Throughout his career, the Braves right fielder received letters containing racial slurs and death threats, with one writer threatening to kill him if he topped Ruth's home run record, according to Sports Illustrated.

  • The threats got so intense that the Braves hired an Atlanta police officer to accompany Aaron everywhere he went and registered him in hotels using fake names, Sports Illustrated reported.

Despite the racism he faced on and off the field, Aaron broke barriers in a "dignified and respective manner," Martin Luther King III tells Axios' Russell Contreras.

  • "He certainly could have rightfully been bitter and angry" at the racism directed toward him as he neared the record, but he "personified what needed to be personified."
  • "I think we certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to him for what he was able to do," King says.

Aaron, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues and made his MLB debut in April 1954.

  • He retired in 1976 with 755 home runs, and 3,771 hits. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. Aaron died on Jan. 22, 2021, at the age of 86.

Aaron's impact on Atlanta

Franklin says that Aaron's 715th home run brought national attention to Atlanta, and it "brought us a sense of civic pride."

  • "He brought us a sense that we could do things that people thought were impossible, and breaking Babe Ruth's record was considered impossible. He did it — and he did it with grace and style."

The Hall of Famer's legacy was further cemented in Atlanta in 2021 when the city's Board of Education renamed a high school that honored a Confederate general to Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy, the AJC reports.

  • In 2022, the city relocated a bronze bust of Aaron that was once at Turner Field to a baseball field at Adams Park, the southwest Atlanta neighborhood where Aaron lived until his death.

Ambassador Young, a longtime friend of Aaron who served as mayor from 1982 to 1990, tells Axios that many Atlantans felt proud that Aaron was making history in their city.

  • "We were so anxious to be a big league city that this was a combination of our dreams, not just his."

Mayor Andre Dickens tells Axios in a statement that Aaron's home run happened when the city was "changing and moving forward."

  • "When I think about that 715th, I also think about the 714 before it, the forty after it, and everything he and his wife Billye have done for the Atlanta community for decades — and the countless lives touched along the way."

Commemorating the anniversary

The Braves and the Atlanta History Center will host a ribbon cutting on Monday for a new exhibit titled "More than Brave: The Life of Henry Aaron." It opens to the public on Tuesday.

  • A celebration will be at 6:30pm before the Braves take on the New York Mets at Truist Park.
  • The first 15,000 fans who walk through the gates at the park will receive a bobblehead.

What to expect: The exhibit includes photographs, quotes from his book, "I had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story," memorabilia and artifacts from Aaron's family, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Braves.

What they're saying: Braves President and CEO Derek Schiller tells Axios that Aaron was known for his athleticism but was a "prolific businessman" who brought people together.

  • "It's our honor — (in) a lot of ways it's our requirement — that we pay homage to this figure, to the man, to all that he represented, and he keep his legacy alive."
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