Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable—the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.
When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.
The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.
In addition, Aaron faced other obstacles and controversies as the 1974 season approached. In February, Atlanta president Bill Bartholomay had announced that the Braves would bench Aaron for their season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds, which would be played on the road. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from members of the baseball media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were assaulting the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that was clearly not their best. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1973. He was still their best player, even as he turned 40 years of age. Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.”
After several weeks of heated debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped into the fracas. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced his disapproval of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron. “Barring disability,” the commissioner went on to say, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.” Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, only because he had no such power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, the message was clear to the Braves, who eventually reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup on Opening Day.
Facing Reds right-hander Jack Billingham in the Thursday afternoon sun of Riverfront Stadium, Aaron patiently watched the first four pitches thrown to him. With the count now three-and-one, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. A few seconds later, Billingham’s fifth delivery landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.
Although the Braves obviously didn’t want him to break the record on the road, Aaron remained in the game. He grounded out, walked, and flied out in his final three plate appearances. Not wanting to take any more chances with fate, Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews (a longtime teammate of Aaron) removed him from the game in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with journeyman Rowland Office, who then gave way to pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.
After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on Saturday afternoon. Given the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews decided to sit his venerable superstar. Mathews moved Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.
Mathews’ decision prompted an angry reaction from the Commissioner’s Office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order” and that “severe” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.
So Aaron returned to the lineup for the series finale, but failed to play one of his vintage games. He struck out twice—each time on three pitches—and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Aaron remained one short of breaking the record.
As a tribute to Aaron’s impending achievement, the Topps Company had issued a unique set of “Hank Aaron Special” cards as part of its 1974 set, including miniature reprints of all of his previous Topps cards. Issued as the No. 1 card in the set of 660, Aaron’s primary card was unlike most of the 1974s, which featured a vertical design with colored banners at the top and bottom of the card. The Aaron card featured a horizontal arrangement, with a gold interior border running along the edges of the card. Rather than fill most of the card with a full-sized photographic image, Topps used a smaller portrait photo of the Hall of Famer, creating an image that filled two-thirds of the card. That allowed Topps to create a special segment with the other third of the card, which featured a blue and gold crown, the name “hank aaron” in a lower-case gold font, and the words “NEW ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING” emblazoned in upper-case purple letters toward the bottom of the card.
In producing the card, Topps did something that it rarely did in creating cards to commemorate special occasions. Rather than highlighting a record-surpassing feat after it had happened, Topps actually anticipated Aaron’s breaking of the record. Keep in mind that the card was issued in March, when Topps traditionally used to release its first cards of the new year, or about a month before Aaron had even broken, much less tied the record. In a sense, Topps took a gamble in issuing the card, albeit a small one, so early in the season. What if Aaron had suffered a season-ending injury during spring training, or had endured the calamity of a broken leg on Opening Day? That would have left Aaron waiting until 1975 to tie and break the record, leaving Topps with what would have been probably its most famous “error” card of all time. Thankfully, no physical adversities came to pass, spring training progressed without injury, and Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day before eventually breaking it days later—a happy ending for all.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.