ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves celebrated one of their most cherished singular moments in franchise history on Tuesday, prior to the club’s home opener, honoring Hank Aaron on the 40th anniversary of his 715th career home run.
Forty years and five decades of baseball have passed since Aaron, who spent 21 of 23 MLB seasons with the Braves (1954-74), lit up the Atlanta sky with his 715th homer, toppling Babe Ruth’s career record which stood for 39 years.
Aaron’s shot heard ’round the world, circa 1974, occurred at 9:07 p.m. EST.
From 1919-32, soon after baseball introduced a new baseball for regulation play, Ruth accounted for 632 of his 714 homers — notching 11 40-homer campaigns in that 14-year span, highlighted by the staggering tally of 60 in 1927.
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Tuesday’s ceremony opened with a cool visual — 715 Braves fans adorned in #44 jerseys and holding baseball-shaped numbered placards, commemorating each of Aaron’s homers leading up the record-breaking evening in 1974.
A litany of luminaries from the Braves past (Dusty Baker, Ralph Garr, Tom House) and other sporting walks of life — including MLB Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig — then took turns professing their admiration for Aaron, while describing his overall impact with the Atlanta sports community.
After all, the Braves, circa 1966, were the first major pro franchise to establish roots in the city of Atlanta, beating out the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons by just a few months. (The NBA’s Hawks would relocate from St. Louis to Atlanta two years later).
At the end his glowing five-minute speech, Selig heaped effusive praise onto a man he had befriended more than 40-plus years ago.
"Baseball is forever our national pastime … because of people like Henry Aaron," said Selig to the Braves’ opening-night audience at Turner Field.
Aaron then took the podium, eliciting a hearty, sustained cheer from the Braves faithful.
"Forty years ago, if I had known (the anniversary celebration) would be like this, I would have hit (No. 715) earlier," joked Aaron, now 80 years old.
The Hammer then thanked Braves fans, past and present, for their kindness and gratitude to him and his family over the years.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
When perusing the active rosters for the Braves and Mets, Bartolo Colon (turns 41 in May) — New York’s starting pitcher for Tuesday — was the only player from either club that had been born prior to Aaron’s 715th homer.
What’s more, Commissioner Selig, a Wisconsin native and Braves fan during the 1950s and 60s, headlined the 715 tribute to Aaron, who broke into the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, at the young age of 20.
The businessman Selig first ventured into baseball after purchasing the expansion Seattle Pilots (est. 1969) out of bankruptcy court and relocating the franchise to Milwaukee, just days before the 1970 MLB season.
On April 8, 1976, the two-year anniversary of Aaron’s 715th homer, the future Hall of Famer (1982 inductee) laced a pair of RBI singles off Catfish Hunter (a future Hall of Famer, as well) and sparked the Brewers to a 5-0 win over the Yankees.
On the second-to-last day of the 1973 regular season (Sept. 29), Aaron belted his 714th career homer in the Braves’ 7-0 home rout of the Astros, leaving him just one game during the ’73 campaign to equal Ruth’s record of 714 homers.
To his credit, Aaron tallied three hits, one run and one RBI against Houston in the ’73 finale … but the homerless outing meant he’d have to wait through a long offseason to tie and break arguably the most hallowed individual achievement in sports.
Fast forward to Opening Day, 1974: With the Braves in Cincinnati, in his first at-bat of the season, Aaron blasted a three-run homer off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, officially tying Ruth for career homers.
After strategically sitting out Atlanta’s next game (Saturday) and then going homerless in three at-bats (Sunday), the stage was set for Aaron to make history at Atlanta (later Fulton County) Stadium — the Braves’ home of nine seasons at the time.
The night of April 8, 1974 had a different feel than any other MLB game for that month. For starters, NBC — which typically aired only weekend games during the 1970s — was on hand to broadcast the event to a national, pre-cable-era audience.
It’s unknown whether the Peacock Network would have kept airing subsequent Braves games until Aaron eclipsed Ruth’s record … but it became a moot subject since Aaron needed only two home at-bats to be immortalized forever.
Facing pitcher Al Downing (who attended Tuesday’s ceremony) in the fourth inning and with the Braves trailing 3-1, Aaron crushed a letter-high delivery deep to left field.
As legend has it … Aaron, who was greeted at the plate by a media horde (including current Turner Sports personality Craig Sager, who was just a young cub reporter at the time), didn’t immediately recognize his teammate of three-plus seasons (House).
In Hammerin’ Hank’s defense, the record-breaking homer was the culmination of months and years of intense national scrutiny, which also involved receiving hate — some racist — mail from fans who were loyal to Ruth’s place in baseball history.
Racking up No. 715 had to be equal parts surreal, fulfilling and exhausting for Aaron. But it’s also a testament to a man whose class, dignity and respect for baseball extends well beyond 40 years.