Hank Aaron : biography
While many expected Aaron to break Ruth’s home run record in 1973, during the season came on August 6. This was Hank Aaron Day in Wisconsin and the Braves played the Milwaukee Brewers in an exhibition game. The guests in attendance included Aaron’s first manager with the Braves, Charlie Grimm, his teammate from Jacksonville, Felix Mantilla, Eau Claire president Ron Berganson, and Del Crandall, the catcher for the 1957 world champion Braves and the-then manager of the Brewers.Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.129, ISBN 978-0-06-072290-6
The only position that the Braves wanted Aaron to play was as the designated hitter because the game was held in an American League park; at that time, however, the National League prohibited use of the DH even in scrimmages. Because National League president Chub Feeney could not be contacted, it was left to the umpire, Bruce Froemming to make the decision. Froemming ignored the rule, allowing Aaron to be the DH for the Braves. Later on, National League officials ignored the infraction.Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.130, ISBN 978-0-06-072290-6
Breaking Ruth’s record
Although Aaron himself downplayed the "chase" to surpass Babe Ruth, baseball enthusiasts and the national media grew increasingly excited as he closed in on the home run record. During the summer of 1973 Aaron received thousands of letters every week; the Braves ended up hiring a secretary to help him sort through it.Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.62, ISBN 978-0-06-072290-6
At the age of 39, Aaron hit 40 home runs in 392 at-bats, ending the 1973 season one home run short of the record. He hit home run number 713 on September 29, 1973, and with one day remaining in the season, many expected him to tie the record. But in his final game that year, playing against the Houston Astros (managed by Leo Durocher, who had once roomed with Babe Ruth), he was unable to achieve this. After the game, Aaron stated that his only fear was that he might not live to see the 1974 season. Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.179, ISBN 978-0-06-072290-6
Over the winter, Aaron was the recipient of death threats and a large assortment of hate mail from people who did not want to see a black man break Ruth’s nearly sacrosanct home run record.Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.64, ISBN 978-0-06-072290-6 The threats extended to those providing positive press coverage of Aaron. Lewis Grizzard, then sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, reported receiving numerous phone calls calling journalists "nigger lovers" for covering Aaron’s chase. While preparing the massive coverage of the home run record, he quietly had an obituary written, afraid that Aaron might be murdered.Grizzard, Lewis, "If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground," p. 239-40
Sports Illustrated pointedly summarized the racist vitriol that Aaron was forced to endure:
"Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport…? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic?"Leggett, William. "A Tortured Road to 715." Sports Illustrated, p.28, May 28, 1973.
Aaron received an outpouring of public support in response to the bigotry. Newspaper cartoonist Charles Schulz created a series of Peanuts strips printed in August 1973 in which Snoopy attempts to break the Ruth record, only to be besieged with hate mail. Lucy says in the August 11 strip, "Hank Aaron is a great player…but you! If you break Babe Ruth’s record, it’ll be a disgrace!" Coincidentally, Snoopy was only one home run short of tying the record (and finished the season as such when Charlie Brown got picked off during Snoopy’s last at-bat), and as it turned out, Aaron finished the 1973 season one home run short of Ruth.[The Complete Peanuts: 1973 to 1974, Charles M. Schulz, p.95] Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire Hodgson, even denounced the racism and declared that her husband would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron’s attempt at the record.Hank Aaron and the Home Run that changed America, Tom Stanton, p.25 Ruth, who was unprejudiced, had himself been subjected to racial taunts during his youth, by those who fancied that he had Negroid features.