Hank Aaron’s chase of Ruth was an ultimate test of courage

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For Hank Aaron, who died on Friday at the age of 86, breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record took more than just talent on the field

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron ended the 1973 Major League Baseball season — his 20th — with 713 career home runs, and suddenly the long-dormant ghost of Babe Ruth rose up again.

Ruth was a baseball idol. He was the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the hero to a generation of Americans. His 714 career home runs were thought unassailable at the time; when he hit his last, in 1935, the next closest player was his Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig with 378.

He was everything Aaron was not. Aaron had none of the flamboyance that made Ruth the game’s biggest attraction. He didn’t have an imposing physical presence, standing 6-feet tall but weighing only 180 pounds. His power was due to his quick wrists, generated from countless hours spent hitting bottle caps with a broomstick while growing up poor in Mobile, Alabama. And he was black.

Aaron was 13 when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. In 1948, while he was leading his high school team to the Mobile Negro High School Championship, he heard Robinson speak and decided that he too would one day play in the majors. Early in his career, he was forced to eat in different restaurants and sleep in different hotels than his Milwaukee Braves teammates.

There were some people who didn’t want Aaron to break Ruth’s home run record simply because of his skin color. Letters, sometimes numbering in the thousands per week, starting flowing into the Atlanta Braves offices. Death threats were made against his family. Aaron was forced to travel with an armed security guard.

Arguments were made that Aaron had the benefit of playing more games and getting more at-bats (Aaron hit No. 715 in his 2,967th game and 11,295th at-bat; Ruth did it in 2,503 games and 8,390 at-bats), but the hate mail he received boiled down to one issue: he was black and Ruth was not.

“HOW DO I TELL MY KIDS THAT A NI**GER DID IT. BUT IT TOOK MORE AT BATS, LIVE BALL, AND OTHER NI**ER TRICKS,” read one letter.

“To Hank Aaron: A Rotten Ni**er…you must have made every intelligent white man hate you and your opinions even more,” reads another.

Aaron tried to ignore everything that was happening off the field around him. Outwardly, he displayed nothing that would show he took the threats seriously or was bothered by the racial epithets hurled at him and his family. But, inside, the threats only fueled him.

“Dammit all, I had to break the record,” he wrote in his 1990 autobiography. “I had to do it for Jackie, and my people and myself, and for everybody who ever called me a ni**er.”

Aaron tied Ruth in his first at-bat of the 1974 season, hitting his 714th home run against Jack Billingham of the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day. Four days later, as the Braves hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aaron came to bat in the bottom of the fourth inning to face left-hander Al Downing, teammate Darrell Evans standing on first base and Dusty Baker standing in the on-deck circle.

Aaron once claimed that he never looked for fastballs because he knew, with his snappy wrists, the pitcher could never get one by him, anyway. And Downing didn’t. On a 1-0 pitch, Downing threw Aaron a heater. A few seconds later, the ball landed in the waiting glove of relief pitcher Tom House standing in the Braves bullpen. Baseball had a new home run king. Aaron was mobbed by fans and teammates as he reached home plate.

What did Hank Aaron’s home run record mean for baseball?

Only a decade earlier, before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act swept away the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era, Aaron would’ve been denied service at whites-only businesses. Now, on April 8, 1974, the 54,000 fans in attendance at Atlanta Stadium gave him a rousing ovation.

Vin Scully, calling the game for the Dodgers broadcast, described the moment beautifully: “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

Aaron would retire two years later with 755 career home runs, a mark that stood until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007. But Bonds’ achievement was tainted by allegations of using performance-enhancing substances. For many, Aaron remained the real home run king. Aaron, though, appeared on the video screen to congratulate Bonds, displaying the same grace he showed amidst the turmoil surrounding his own chase of the record.

He had achieved the acceptance that so many tried to deny him in 1974. And for a generation of fans who watched on television or listened on the radio as a black man broke the most hallowed record in sports, it was a defining moment.

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