As the 1974 Major League Baseball season began, all eyes were on Hank Aaron. He had finished 1973 with 713 career home runs, one shy of the all-time record set by Babe Ruth. On April 4, Opening Day, a 39-year-old Aaron sent the very first pitch he saw over the wall, finally tying Ruth and setting the stage for his ascent to the top of the all-time home runs list.
Aaron, who played in the majors from 1954 until 1976, was known for his longevity and consistency in addition to his power-hitting. He had hit 40 homers the previous season, drawing the nation’s attention as he approached Ruth’s record. The Post Office declared that Aaron received the most mail of any private citizen in the country, and although the majority was positive he was also the recipient of hate mail and death threats. Ruth’s record had stood for four decades, and racist fans were upset at the thought of Aaron, one of the last MLB players to have played in the Negro Leagues, breaking it.
The ownership of the Braves wanted to sit Aaron for the first series of the 1974 season to ensure that he broke Ruth’s record in Atlanta. The league, however, insisted that he play at least two of the three games. It looked for all the world like he would break the record in Cincinnati after he homered on the very first pitch of the season, but 715 eluded him until he returned to Atlanta. He broke Ruth’s record in the fourth inning of the Atlanta Braves’ home opener on April 8.
Aaron retired two years later with a career total of 755 home runs. That record would stand until 2007, when it was broken by Barry Bonds, but Bonds’ well-documented and extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs has made his record illegitimate in the eyes of many fans and kept him out of the Hall of Fame. Aaron was inducted into the Hall in 1982, as soon as he was eligible, and continues to hold a number of MLB records.