(January 23, 2021). When I heard that baseball great and American icon Henry “Hank” Aaron passed away on Friday (January 22) at the age of 86, it was the latest reminder of how fleeting life is and how so many of our greatest American heroes and civil rights legends have left us in recent months.
Aaron, whose list of important accomplishments transcended the baseball diamond, was a once-quiet sportsman who ultimately became an outspoken fighter for equal rights and social justice issues. He was quick to acknowledge both the strides that America had made in addressing its racist history and the fact that it still had a long, long way to go.
His death on Friday was a reminder not only of his individual accomplishments in sports, but how he paved the way for other Blacks in baseball (and sports in general) and how he used his voice to remind us of how much work needed to be done to achieve equality.
When he broke beloved baseball figure (and former New York Yankee) Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, it was a singular moment in history, one whose buildup had all the drama of a contentious presidential race. It was preceded by a cliffhanger of a season the year before where Aaron was stopped with 713 career MLB home runs.
The question in 1974 was not if, but when he would tie and break Babe’s record. More specifically, in which of his team’s first two 1974 season series – either away vs. Cincinnati Reds or at home vs. the L.A. Dodgers – would Hammering Hank accomplish the feat and go down in history as baseball’s home run king?
Djrobblog went back in time to April 8, 1974 – the day Aaron broke the record with his 715th long ball knocked clear into the bull pen of the Braves during their season home-opener against the L.A. Dodgers. The pitcher against whom Aaron knocked the historic home run was lefty Al Downing – a fellow Black man – who had already walked right-handed Aaron earlier in the game.
It was Downing’s 1-0 fastball pitch over the middle that Aaron sent sailing into the night sky and into the Braves bullpen for his record-breaking home run, one that prompted a celebration like none other in baseball at that point.
As Aaron rounded the bases, players from the opposing team congratulated him, patting him on the back as he rounded first, second and then third base. By the time he arrived at home plate, there were throngs of people waiting for him – including his teammates, fans, reporters and even Aaron’s parents.
The game was still in the fourth inning.
There was still much more baseball to be played, both in that game and beyond. Aaron would wind up his career with 755 homers, a mark eclipsed only by Barry Bonds (762) decades later.
As this is a music blog, I decided to pay a unique tribute to Aaron’s legacy by going back to the Billboard charts of the week that the baseball icon broke Ruth’s record – the charts dated April 13, 1974 – to find the song titles most suitable to the occasion and which could tell Aaron’s story as well as any traditional tribute can.
You’d be surprised how many songs from that second week in April 1974 – in hindsight – unwittingly tell the Hank Aaron story in a way that true lovers of irony will surely appreciate. Most titles appeared on the soul chart (pictured below), but some appeared on the pop and/or country charts that same week.
I’ve taken more than 20 of them and threaded them together in a story below and hope you enjoy them as part of djrobblog’s loving tribute to one of the greatest American patriots of the 20th century and beyond.
You won’t see a tribute like this anywhere else, so here it is…
First, there’s a song from the country chart by Jerry Lee Lewis called “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” That title (at No. 24 country) had zero connection to baseball or even Hank Aaron, but it could caption any number of memes in today’s world depicting the fateful pitch from left-handed Al Downing to right-handed Aaron as the ball went sailing over the outfield and out of play (perhaps as it would be told from Downing’s historical perspective… “I’m left, you’re right…”). You get the picture.
Then there was “Hollywood Swinging” by Kool & the Gang – a new entry on the soul chart that week (at No. 91, eventually a No. 1 tune there and a top-10 pop hit as well). Of course, Hank Aaron was doing some “Atlanta” Swinging on that day, but it’s not lost on this blogger that the team pitching to the slugger was from Hollywood (L.A., more accurately). Hey, you have to grab opportunity when it presents itself.
And speaking of cities, I may as well make the payoff with the song at No. 2 on the soul chart and No. 3 on the pop chart that week (eventually No. 1 on both): “TSOP” by M.F.S.B. The “P” in “TSOP” stands for Philadelphia, as in The Sound of Philadelphia. It’s worth noting that Philly was the soul music capital of the world at that point in 1974, just as Atlanta – Aaron’s adopted hometown and the city where he took his last breath – is for R&B and hip-hop today. That’s it – that’s the connection to “TSOP,” a stretch I know, but it gets better.
Speaking of Philly soul, there was plenty to go around, including the spiritually jubilant “Put Your Hands Together” (at No. 37 soul that week) by the O’Jays. That song, of course, could represent the 11-minute applause and standing ovation Hammering Hank received after his home run cleared the field that night.
Another O’Jays future classic had entered the chart at No. 74 that week. While few would have ever accused Aaron of continuing his pursuit of Ruth’s record solely “For The Love Of Money,” our hero certainly had come into some extra cash during the months leading up to his record-breaking season.
He had just signed a $1M, five-year endorsement deal with the Magnovox television manufacturing company that January (his highest deal at that point) and had already secured one of baseball’s highest player contracts at the time (a three-year, $600K contract he signed with the Braves in 1972). So there was at least some love of money driving Hank.
Another Philly soul tune on the chart that week was “Year of Decision” (at No. 81) by the Three Degrees. The year 1974 was certainly a year of decision for Aaron, who after his record season with the Braves chose to leave the franchise he felt was no longer deserving of his services.
Explaining his decision to leave Atlanta for the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of the ‘74 season, Aaron cited bigotry and the Atlanta fans’ then-lukewarm support of him as he moved closer to Babe Ruth’s record, stating in his memoir, “I didn’t expect the fans to give me a standing ovation every time I stepped on the field, but I thought a few of them might come over to my side as I approached Ruth. At the very least, I felt I had earned the right not be verbally abused and racially ravaged in my home ballpark.”
About the racism Aaron endured in the years leading up to HR No. 715, right next to “Year of Decision” on the soul chart at No. 80 was “Life or Death” by Chairman of the Board. It’s legendary now that Aaron received loads of hate-mail – including death threats – from racist whites who didn’t want a Black man dethroning their beloved hero Babe Ruth from baseball’s home run perch. It had gotten so bad that Aaron had to hire security for his family and take extra precautions when traveling to and from his own games, including being escorted in and out of special entrances at hotels and stadiums.
But as we all know, “Disrespect Can Wreck,” the title of a song by the Escorts (not the ones sneaking Aaron in and out of those entrances) at No. 90 on the soul chart that week. And there was no better in-your-face wrecking moment than Aaron’s 715th HR, a message to his disrespectful detractors and haters that he would not be bowed by the repeated threats of ignorant bigots.
In fact, if not for his love of the game, Hank might have easily decided to give it all up when his life and that of his family was put on the line. As Marvin Gaye might have captioned to Hank via a song he had at No. 62 that week, “You Sure Love to Ball,” although we all know that baseball was not the kind of game the late Motown crooner had in mind when he created that tune (the third single from his Let’s Get It On album). Yet, taken literally, the song could certainly have applied to Aaron.
Surely, Aaron must have felt like “The Lone Ranger” (at No. 66 soul by Oscar Brown, Jr.) out there night after night, enduring jeers and threats and carrying the weight of history on his shoulder. The gravity of Aaron’s place in history had weighed on him ever since he moved up from the Negro Leagues to the Majors in the early 1950s.
As he started winning batting titles and eventually a World Series (when the Braves were still in Milwaukee), he must have felt like saying “I Can Play (Just For You And Me),” which happened to be the title of a song at No. 95 soul that week by Maceo and the Macks. Indeed, he was not just playing for himself but for all the African-Americans kids who would someday follow him in the majors.
Regarding his ability to play, there was a bit of controversy a week earlier as the 1974 season kicked off. The song “Scratch” comes to mind (at No. 98 on the soul chart by the Crusaders) as history recalls how Aaron was scratched from the lineup of the season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds. The Braves didn’t want to take the chance that Aaron, who was one HR away from tying Babe Ruth’s record at the start of the season, might tie and break the record in a venue other than Braves Stadium.
But MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a mission to protect the integrity of the game and told the team that they must play Hank – clearly their best player – at least two of the three games of the season-opening series in Cincinnati, which they did. Aaron knocked the tying 714th home run in Game 1, after which Kuhn, who was present at the game, presented him with a commemorative trophy.
Notably, Kuhn didn’t attend the April 8 game in Atlanta where Aaron broke the record, something Hank considered a snub and apparently never forgot.
Instead, Kuhn sent a surrogate – a black staffer and outstanding former baseball player named Monte Irvin – to represent the Commissioner’s office. It was Irvin, then, who witnessed that “One Brief Moment” (a song at No. 64 on the soul chart that week by Timmy Thomas) in history when the world stood still for Hammering Hank Aaron.
It was Irvin and 53,000+ others who filled the stands and watched that 715th home run ball “Goin’ Down Slow” (Bobby Blue Bland; No. 26 soul) as it approached the left-center field bullpen of the Braves.
It was the Braves – or the “Tribe” (a song at No. 60 that week by none other than a group named Tribe) – who got to be a part of baseball legend, a story that would payoff in the end with Aaron’s return years later to the organization where it all happened. He eventually held executive positions with the Tribe including vice president in charge of player development and later as senior vice president.
Consider those jobs to be the big “Payback” (No. 5 soul; No. 39 pop for Godfather of Soul James Brown that week) for Aaron, who must have felt redeemed after his unceremonious departure from the Braves after the 1974 season. It was indeed Atlanta Braves’ management – with whom Hank had his longest professional affiliation – who first confirmed Aaron’s death to news media on Friday afternoon (Jan. 22).
The poignancy of the moment Hank Aaron broke the greatest Bronx Bomber’s record couldn’t have been captured any better than by Dodgers’ announcer Vin Skully, who called the game and the moment for his radio show that day.
“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,” Skully said. “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.”
That’s some “Eye Witness News” right there (“Eye Witness News” by Lenny Welch was at No. 73 soul that week).
As a music blogger who rarely covers the world of sports, the occasion of Aaron’s passing was too momentous to ignore. The only question was not if I was going to pay tribute, but when and, more importantly, how.
That I was able to find so many songs that coincidentally captured the enormity of Aaron’s historic achievement, which were on the charts during the week that he did it, is a blessing and a bonus.
But wait, I found a few more.
The “Mighty, Mighty” Hank Aaron would have been 87 years old in just two weeks (February 5). “Mighty, Mighty” is, of course, a song by Earth, Wind & Fire, which was at No. 7 soul and 50 pop that April week in ‘74 (eventually peaking higher on both lists).
Then there’s “Leave Your Hat On” by Etta James at No. 84 soul that week. Of course, Aaron’s hat – or his batter’s helmet – remained on his head as he rounded the bases following HR No. 715, but he removed it during the melee that ensued at home plate, revealing the standard team baseball cap. Hey, a hat is still a hat.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this one: “Hey Babe” by the Joneses at No. 63 soul that week. It’s an incredible stretch, but we can fantasize for this article’s purposes that the “Babe” nod here is to none other than the Great Bambino himself on the occasion of Aaron’s two-run stunner against the Dodgers (although the song’s subtitle – “Is The Gettin’ Still Good” – would lead one to conclude otherwise).
And finally, I’ll take a dip into the country-pop well with this closer: “There Won’t Be Anymore” by Charlie Rich (No. 38 country, No. 33 pop that week).
Because, truly, there won’t be anymore like Hammering Hank Aaron.
Thanks. Mr. Aaron for all you’ve done for baseball, for sports, for equality, for America and for the world.
R.I.P. Hank Aaron (February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021).
PS. A quote from Aaron’s former manager (and another tie-in to “Leave Your Hat On” by Etta James on the charts April 8, 1974):
“There aren’t five men faster in baseball, and no better base runner,” Bobby Bragan, Aaron’s manager in the mid-1960s, told Sports Illustrated. “If you need a base, he’ll steal it quietly. If you need a shoestring catch, he’ll make it, and his hat won’t fly off and he won’t fall on his butt. He does it like DiMaggio.”
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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