The first marvelous moment

Hank Aaron’s road to immortality started 70 years ago

Published April 23, 2024

Today it’s been 70 years since Hank Aaron’s first big-league home run. Famously, it was nowhere near his last.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Aaron began his pro career in 1952, as an outfielder in the Negro American League (it stuck around for a few years after Jackie Robinson did his thing). But as the majors continued integrating, it didn’t take long for Aaron to get his call from the Milwaukee Braves. 

His debut didn’t go as well as Robinson’s: In his first game he went 0-for-5, and he was still on pace for zero career homers through six games. But then, on April 23, he hit a sixth-inning solo shot, contributing to an extra-innings comeback win against the Cardinals.  

Aaron would go on to play 23 seasons in the MLB, going with the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. He hit at least 20 homers every season from 1955 to 1974–a streak that’s four seasons longer than anyone else in history–though he led the majors only once (1957). In May of 1970, he became the first MLB player to record 500 homers and 3,000 hits. The keys to his success were good contact and longevity more than raw power: His lifetime batting average was .305, and if you took away his home runs, he’d still have history’s 31st-highest hit total (as it is, he’s #3).

But you can’t take away the home runs. On April 8, 1974, in the fourth inning of the Braves’ home opener, Aaron hit a two-run homer to left field. His 715th career four-bagger, it broke a career record Babe Ruth had held for nearly 40 years (in fact, Aaron was 15 months old when Ruth retired).

In 1976, “Hammerin’ Hank” retired from baseball with 755 home runs. In 1982, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, on 97.8% of the ballots (yes, nine dudes–an entire starting lineup’s worth–went “meh”). He commanded respect throughout his career, for his on-field talents, positive personality, tireless work ethic, and bravery–as a Black man chasing a white legend’s record, in the Deep South, he had the extra pressure of actual death threats. Even the egomaniac Muhammad Ali once called him “The only man I idolize more than myself.” 

Recently, new video surfaced of Aaron’s homer #715, the record-breaker, and the ensuing on-field celebration. Videographer Charlie Russo, who was then 31, had no special permission to get onto the field; he simply ran on behind Aaron’s family (and Sammy Davis Jr., and Pearl Bailey), eluding the extra security measures around Hank at the time. The celebration footage is quite intimate, in other words. Aaron stands just feet away, smiling and waving to the crowd. “Everything we did,” Russo told the Associated Press, “was just, you know, magical.” 

When he died in 2021, at age 86, Barack Obama called him “one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen, and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.” Barry Bonds, who for some reason is not in the Hall of Fame despite having surpassed Aaron’s round-trip record in 2007, said, “He is an icon, a legend, and a true hero for so many.”

Everything he did was just, you know, magical.

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