Hank Aaron home run record anniversary sheds light on racial prejudice

On April 8, 1974 in Atlanta, "Hammerin' Hank" broke the major league home run record that had stood for nearly 40 years.
Posted at 4:15 PM, Apr 08, 2024

It was a swing that broke a baseball record — making history on the field and off.

"When a friend of mine asked me a couple of weeks ago, 'Do you realize how long it's been?' And I'm thinking, without going into much thought, I said, '25 years? He said, "Charlie, it's been 50 years!'" recalled baseball fan Charlie Russo.

On April 8, 1974 in Atlanta, Henry "Hank" Aaron broke the major league home run record that had stood for nearly 40 years.

Russo was one of 53,000 fans at Atlanta-Fulton county stadium that night. He captured "Hammerin' Hank's" 715th homer with his home movie camera.

"Oh my goodness. I started filming and the first one was a ball and then a second one. 'Oh, my lord, he hit it out.' And now I'm thinking, 'Oh goodness, I got all this on my camera,'" said Russo.

Aaron was relieved, saying, "The average person can't realize what a nightmare this has been."

As he got closer to beating Babe Ruth's record, he received nearly 1 million pieces of mail, about a third of it racist or threatening.

Author Michael MacCambridge writes in "The Big Time," his recent book about sports in the 1970s, "The chase for the record exposed the deep fault lines of America's long reckoning with race."

"He got something like 930,000 letters in 1973. Most of them were very positive and encouraging," said MacCambridge. "But a dark minority of those were very negative and very hateful with the worst and most profane language. And that shined a little bit of a mirror for American sports fans on what some of their cohort were like."

MacCambridge added, "I think because Aaron was Black and because Ruth was White. It sort of gave Americans some inkling of what African American athletes and people in general had been dealing with for generations," the author said.

Aaron would later say the threatening letters "carved a piece of my heart away."

"I think 50 years on, we can see more clearly what Henry Aaron was up against what he soldiered through and what he accomplished in the face of a different time at a time when there was a clear double-standard for Black athletes and what he endured to break that record," said MacCambridge.

After Aaron retired in 1976, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"By steadily pursuing his calling in the face of unreasoning hatred, Hank Aaron has proven himself a great human being, as well as a great athlete," said Bush.

When Aaron died in 2021, Bush described him as a joyful man, adding, "Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him."