July 20, 1976: Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Brewers hits his 755th and final home run off pitcher Dick Drago of the California Angels. The Home Run King had gone back to Milwaukee for the final year of his 23-year big league career. Aaron collected 3,771 career hits, and you can do the math: even without the homers, he still had 3,016. And he’s the MLB career leader in runs batted in with 2,297. Hank was a hitter who stood the test of time and tied eras together. In 1976, Aaron was the last veteran of the Negro Leagues remaining on a major league roster.
Aaron could have been teammates with Willie Mays. Wouldn’t that have been something? Aaron was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1952 and had a strong three-month run there. He was then offered MLB deals by the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. The Braves put up $50 per month more than the Giants, and Aaron opted for Boston. (Mays was a star rookie for the Giants in 1951 but was in the Army most of 1952 and all of 1953. Aaron didn’t know what he was missing.)
By the time Aaron made his big league debut, the Braves had moved to Milwaukee. He hit his first major league home run in April, 1954. Aaron quickly became the heart of the franchise and was National League MVP the year the Braves won the World Series in 1957. It was the only MVP award of Aaron’s career (he finished third a lot). In 1963, Aaron nearly won the Triple Crown, leading the NL with 44 homers and 130 RBI and finishing third in batting at .319. Yet he was third in MVP voting.
The team moved to Atlanta in 1966, and Hank kept hammerin’. In the early 1970s, attention turned to Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. On the second-to-last day of the 1973 season, Aaron hit No. 713. But he wasn’t able to tie the mark in the year’s finale, and a very long off-season began, in more ways than one. Aaron endured hate mail and death threats from racists who didn’t want to see him break Ruth’s record.
But on April 8, 1974, before a crowd of 53,775 in Atlanta and a national TV audience, Aaron hit No. 715 off Al Downing of the L.A. Dodgers. It sailed over the head of leftfielder (and future Boisean) Bill Buckner and into the Braves bullpen. Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully summed it up perfectly that night: “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.”
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)