By Published: April 8, 2024

Fifty years after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, CU Boulder scholar reflects on the legacy of an athlete who began his career in a segregated league

In the fourth inning of the Atlanta Braves’ fourth game of the 1974 Major League Baseball season, Hank Aaron approached home plate, facing Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.

Aaron had walked on his first at-bat in the second inning, and the first pitch of his second at-bat was low—ball one. A sell-out home crowd of 53,775 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium stood, waiting for the second pitch.

Calling the game for Atlanta, Milo Hamilton said, “He’s sittin’ on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left center field, that ball is gonna beeeee… outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time and it’s Henry Aaron!”

Jared Bahir Browsh

Jared Bahir Browsh, a CU boulder assistant teaching professor of critical sports studies, notes that Hank Aaron represented greatness despite facing racism throughout his baseball career.

As the stadium roared and fireworks illuminated the night sky, Aaron rounded the bases and longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully noted, “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, and it is a great moment for all of us and particularly for Henry Aaron!”

Fifty years ago today, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714, which Ruth set with his last career home run on May 25, 1935. For 39 years, many said it was a record that couldn’t be broken. But at age 40, and as one of the last active players who began their baseball careers in the Negro Leagues when the sport was segregated, Aaron did what for decades had seemed impossible.

In the months leading up to that April evening, Aaron received more than a million letters; he even received a “most mail” award from the U.S. Postal Service. However, a significant number of those letters weren’t expressing admiration, but hate.

In the lead-up to No. 715, Aaron faced death threats, kidnapping threats to his family and racist vitriol, and racism was a constant throughout his career. For generations of athletes that followed him, Aaron, who died in 2021, has been an example of not only persevering, but excelling, even as some still try to put asterisks by his records.

“We see that first wave of athletes like Jackie Robinson, who entered these newly desegregated leagues in their mid- to late-20s, if not older, and then the next generation of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and that’s when we can fully recognize the talent that was left behind,” says Jared Bahir Browsh, a University of Colorado Boulder assistant teaching professor of critical sports studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies.

“They had absolutely incredible careers, but they also played their earliest games in the Jim Crow South, they lived through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and yet they represented some of the most visible achievement in American culture by African Americans. We kind of dilute the obstacles that they faced getting to that point, but what Hank Aaron accomplished is just as incredible today as it was 50 years ago.”


Early obstacles

Aaron, who was one of eight children, grew up in a poor Black community in Mobile, Alabama. He loved baseball from an early age and would play for hours, recalling in a 2014 interview with CNN, "When I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama, on a little dirt street, I remember my mother about 6 or 7 o'clock in the afternoon. You could hardly see and I'd be trying to throw a baseball and she'd say, 'Come here, come here!' And I'd say, 'For what?' She said, 'Get under the bed.’”

As he and his family hid, he said, "the KKK would march by, burn a cross and go on about their business and then she would say, 'You can come out now.' Can you imagine what this would do to the average person? Here I am, a little boy, not doing anything, just catching a baseball with a friend of mine and my mother telling me, 'Go under the bed.'"

When he was 14, he decided he wanted to be a major league baseball player like Jackie Robinson, his hero and the player who integrated Major League Baseball. Aaron played for a semi-pro team while still in high school and at age 18, played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Baseball League. In 1952, he joined the Boston Braves organization on a farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and played his first major league game in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves.

Hank Aaron hitting 715th home run

Hank Aaron watches whether his second-pitch hit during his second at-bat in the April 8, 1974, game between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers would become career home run No. 715. (Photo: Harry Harris/Associated Press)

Through his farm league experiences and as he entered the major leagues, Aaron and the few other Black athletes with whom he played were aware of the burden on their shoulders. In his autobiography, Aaron noted, “We had to clear the way for other black players. … The Braves knew, and we knew, that we not only had to play well, but if we ever lost our cool or caused an incident, it might set the whole program back five or 10 years. When the pitchers threw at us, we had to get up and swing at the next pitch. When somebody called us a n*****, we had to pretend as if we didn’t hear it.”

“We forget how young players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were when they started playing, and we expect them to be instant civil rights leaders,” Browsh says. “Both Mays and Aaron entered the league at 20 and started playing professionally as teenagers. The pressure was always there. They were constantly being held up to a magnifying glass in terms of ‘We’re waiting for you to fail, waiting to tear you down.’ Just walking that line is exhausting, let alone speaking out against racism.”

MVP-level every year

Throughout his 23-season professional career, "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron was one of the most consistent and powerful players in the major leagues. Between 1955 and 1973, he hit at least 24 home runs every season; in 15 of those seasons, he hit 30 or more. He also set records for most runs batted in, extra base hits and total bases. Though he never hit 50 home runs in a season, as some players have, “if you look at his season-by-season stats, he is the example of consistency, but his consistency was MVP-level every single year,” Browsh says.

However, because of his low-key demeanor and workman’s approach to his job, Aaron didn’t garner a lot of widespread national attention until he began approaching Ruth’s home run record in the 1973 season.

“We lose sight of how big baseball was at that time,” Browsh explains. “Baseball’s now floating around being the third most popular sport in the U.S., but it was still America’s pastime when Hank Aaron was playing. When he broke the record, it was an early season game, which normally wouldn’t have been on national television, so for that to happen shows how much the country was watching.

“(He) ended the ‘73 season at 714 and you could tell he really wanted to break the record, but he came to be fearful for his life over a record in sports. So, he was living with that, but at the same time there was a knowledge that so much Black achievement has been erased from U.S. history, but there’s no erasing being No. 1 in the most storied record in sports. He had an awareness of, ‘There’s no removing my name if I do this.’”

Approaching Ruth’s vaunted 714 not only brought Aaron an avalanche of racist vitriol, but hate for surpassing an American icon, Browsh says: “The idolization of Babe Ruth came, in part, from the fact that—much like how we look at the ‘50s and ‘60s now—there was this nostalgia that he represented a better time, a more pure time.

Hank Aaron celebrating 715th home run with Braves teammates

Hank Aaron (No. 44) celebrates with his Atlanta Braves teammates after crossing home plate following his 715th career home run. (Photo: Associated Press)

“The talent levels and knowledge of the game and the athleticism was much different when Hank Aaron was playing than when Babe Ruth was. But in many people’s minds, he was a white player who came from being an orphan, and he kind of represented this pure, white supremacy of the American dream. Meanwhile, Hank Aaron—who worked his way up through racism, playing in the segregated South where he couldn’t even eat with his teammates—somehow that wasn’t considered equal to the rise of Babe Ruth.”

‘Still he represented greatness’

In the five decades since Aaron broke Ruth’s record and closed his career with 755 total home runs, a record that stood until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007, some have tried to put asterisks by Aaron’s records—framing their arguments around Aaron playing more games and more seasons than the players whose records he broke, especially Ruth’s.

There’s also still resistance to Black athletes speaking out about social and structural inequities, “this idea of ‘you should just be happy to be here,’” Browsh says.

“The white supremacy in sports is being challenged, and we need to remember not to make the same mistakes. There are athletes reaching these incredible heights in sports—and it’s happening in athletics around the world—where we’re seeing more diverse representation and excellence in these sports and it’s not being met with welcoming arms. There’s a portion of the population that not only is uncomfortable with it, but undermine it by saying it’s affirmative action, or they’re ‘natural athletes’ so they have an unfair advantage, that their achievements are lesser because of whatever reason.”

There’s a prevalent myth that Black athletes are privileged over white athletes, Browsh says, “and all these myths are not only untrue, but they ignore how much hard work underlies these achievements.”

An important aspect of Aaron’s legacy, Browsh says, is that he excelled even when so much around him did not make it easy for him to do it. As he crossed home plate after hitting No. 715, his parents met him on the field and his mother hugged him fiercely, not letting go because, as she later mentioned in an interview, she didn’t think anyone would shoot him if she was holding on.

“We can’t imagine those kinds of burdens,” Browsh says, “and still he represented greatness.”

Top image: Hank Aaron hits home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974. (Photo: Joe Holloway Jr./Associated Press)

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