Number 715 – The inspiring story of Hank Aaron

When Babe Ruth hit his last home run, number 714, in 1935, the entire baseball world thought his feat could never be accomplished in another lifetime. After all, ‘The Babe’ was considered by many to be the greatest clean hitter of all time and his was an inspiring story. But like so many world records and personal bests that had been set since then, he was destined to be broken. The way this record was to be rewritten came from an unlikely source that became a legend and an inspiring story on its own.

Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934. He was one year old and was ‘The Babe’s’ 714th hit to set his long-standing record. Aaron grew up in poverty where his family was large and very poor. What makes this such an inspiring story for all generations of athletes and sports fans is that Aaron was black. For some racists at the time, a black person breaking the record set by ‘The Babe’ seemed unthinkable. Perhaps that is where the romance of this inspiring story unfolds. When Aaron was young, he couldn’t afford baseball equipment. Therefore, he would make his own bats and hit bottle caps. Growing up on a farm picking cotton gave him strong hands and arms which naturally led to his already passionate desire to play ball.

Aaron began his professional baseball career and inspirational story with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League and in the minor leagues, Aaron began his major league career in 1954. (He is the last Negro League baseball player who has 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 inspiring history in the Major Leagues was relatively quiet. But little by little and steadily, he was increasing his numbers to surpass 714. He hit 13 in 1954 during his first year in the majors. Hit 27 the following year, 26 the following year, then 44 in 1957. Forty home runs in 1960. Forty-five in 1962. Forty-four in 1963, again in 1966, and once more in 1969. Forty-seven in 1969. 1971 Silently, relentlessly, Aaron haunted the ghost of possibly baseball’s greatest player. Then the 1973 season ended, and the 39-year-old Aaron, who hit 40 home runs that year, had 713 in his career, one shy of the record.

The 1973-74 offseason was filled with extreme emotions for Aaron and his family in this inspiring story. During the winter of that year, they received thousands of genuine followers wishing him well and well. Many of them were cheering for Aaron to finally break Babe Ruth’s record. They felt that this was the year that this could be achieved. Hank was still home-running with ease at this stage, unlike ‘The Babe’, who at this stage of his career was nothing more than a swamp alcoholic due to his excessive lifestyle.

That winter, Aaron also received his share of hate mail, mostly from racists who can’t fathom the fact that a black man is about to set a record that was set by a white supremo back in 1935. Four decades of white dominance in baseball were coming to an end. For Aaron, this hate mail was actually an inspiration. Although he feared for his family and his life, he actually never gave up wanting to stay away from him. In his own words, “I can’t go into hibernation now,” he said to himself 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 stay alive, but I have to live my life.” His inspiring story continued.

In the first game of the 1974 season in Cincinnati, Aaron scored number 714 outside the stadium, tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record. He would have two more games in Cincinnati, but his manager and Aaron wanted the record to be eclipsed in his stadium, so his manager deliberately benched him for Game 2 in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, this did not go down well with the baseball commissioner, who claimed that this was contrary to the spirit of the game. Aaron started Game 3 of the series, but was unable to break the record. He would have the opportunity to do it in his own stadium to establish his inspiring story.

On the night of Monday, April 8, Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem. Fireworks exploded over the largest crowd the Atlanta stadium had ever held. At 9:07 pm, in front of 53,775 and a national television audience, in his second at-bat but first swing of the night, Aaron broke the record he had held for 39 years. The game was interrupted for 11 minutes by all the well-wishing fanfare. In the process of passing 714, Hank also quietly passed another baseball milestone. Aaron scored the 2,063rd run of his career, moving him one ahead of Mays for the NL lead and behind Ty Cobb and Ruth overall.

Thus ended this inspiring story and the historic quest for one of baseball’s most cherished records. Hank Aaron would go on to number 755, which would not be broken by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants until 2007. But that record will be forever tarnished by Bonds’ alleged drug use.

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