“At 9:07 p.m. today,” The Washington Post’s William Barry Furlong wrote April 8, 1974, “Babe Ruth’s most famous record passed into eclipse. His place in the spectrum of history was taken by Henry Aaron.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers led the Atlanta Braves 3-1 when Aaron came to the plate against Dodgers veteran lefty Al Downing in the fourth inning. Downing had walked Aaron on five pitches in his first at-bat, so there were boos among the sellout crowd of 53,775 when his first pitch was taken low for a ball. With teammate Darrell Evans on first base after reaching on an error, Aaron jumped on Downing’s second offering and sent it 385 feet over the left field wall.
“It’s gone! It’s 715!” Braves radio announcer Milo Hamilton shouted. “There’s a new home run champion of all-time, and it’s Henry Aaron.”
“He hung it a bit,” the 40-year-old Aaron told reporters after the game of Downing’s slider on the inside part of the plate. “I felt all along that if I got a strike to hit, I’d probably hit it out of the ballpark.”
“When he picks out his pitch, it’s going somewhere,” Downing said in the Dodgers’ clubhouse after the Braves’ 7-4 win. “But when he first hit it, I didn’t think it was gone. I was watching left fielder Bill Buckner, and the wind, but the ball kept carrying, carrying …”
Buckner climbed the wire fence in left field in pursuit of Aaron’s blast, but all he came down with was a better view of history. In the Braves’ bullpen, Aker and his fellow relievers had agreed to a plan to avoid a pileup for the ball, which was inscribed with the serial number 12-12-2-2 and clubhouse attendant Bill Acree’s signature in invisible ink, should the memento come their way.
“Before that game, we had decided instead of fighting over the ball, we would each spread out and take a portion of the bullpen,” Aker told The Post in 2019. “We spread out before he hit, but when the ball was on the way to the bullpen, Tommy House broke our little rule. He left his area and came over to where the ball was coming down, and he grabbed the ball.”
Aaron later told reporters that the only thing on his mind as he began his historic home run trot was making sure he touched every base. After Aaron rounded second, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, a pair of 17-year-olds in bell-bottom jeans who had jumped out of the stands, ran up behind him and patted him on the chest and shoulder. The two trespassers would spend the night in jail, but charges were dropped the next morning.
“The older you get, the more you think about it,” Aaron, who reunited with Gaston and Courtenay multiple times over the years, told the Associated Press in 2010. “I’m just glad things worked out the way they did. It could have been a lot worse. They were having fun with it as kids.”
Downing applauded from the mound as Aaron trotted to home plate, where he was mobbed by his teammates. Fireworks were set off, and an 11-minute celebration of Aaron’s achievement ensued, with Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the future president, among those who congratulated Aaron on the field.
The New York Times reported that Aaron was in left field when President Richard Nixon called to congratulate him, but the two eventually connected during the bottom of the sixth. Aaron grounded out in his two at-bats after his home run before being removed in the seventh inning.
After the game, Aaron was asked whether he would start focusing more on his batting average with the home run record behind him.
“Yeah, I’m disappointed with a .311 lifetime batting average,” Aaron replied, somewhat sarcastically. “I got to start concentrating on it.”
The Post reported that Ruth’s widow, Claire, tired after a long day of shopping with her daughter, did not watch the game.
“The newspapers let me know as soon as it happened,” she said. “The Babe loved baseball so very much. I know he was pulling for Hank Aaron to break his record. I sent Henry a wire that covers everything. I’m just wishing him very good luck.”
Aaron’s record-breaking homer came in the Braves’ 1974 home opener. Four days earlier, he tied Ruth’s mark with a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw from the Cincinnati Reds’ Jack Billingham at Riverfront Stadium.
In hopes of giving Aaron the opportunity to break the record in Atlanta, Braves Manager Eddie Mathews held him out of the lineup the following game, but MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn threatened “very serious consequences” if Aaron didn’t play in the series finale.
“I owe the fans in Atlanta a shot at 715,” Aaron said. “If I get a pitch to hit out of the ballpark [here], I’m going to try to dispose of it.”
Aaron went 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts in Atlanta’s 5-3 win over the Reds on April 7. The next day, he made history back home.