Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves circles the bases after hitting his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record off. Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers surrendered the shot at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
By Julian Guilarte
World Baseball Network
This past weekend marked the 49th anniversary of Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record. The pitcher that gave it up was Los Angeles Dodgers starter Al Downing, who reflected on the moment he surrendered Aaron’s 715th home run via phone interview.
“The record’s been broken by Barry. That night was historic for not only me but also for Hank,” Downing said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see his widow, Billye, talk about the record-breaking home run very vividly.”
Aaron not only had the most home runs at his retirement with 755 but also the most RBI with 2,297, a record which still stands today. Aaron won an MVP and three gold gloves during his career, and didn’t just hit for power – he also had 3,771 hits and a lifetime batting average of .305. He played 23 seasons from 1954 to 1976, and played in 21 All-Star Games – the most of any player in MLB history.
“From the ’60s to the early 70’s the All-Star outfield for the National League consisted of Aaron, Mays and Clemente,” Downing said. “They were the standard. They were good every year. I’m not going to relinquish this title to anyone. They wanted to be the starting outfield every year. They didn’t play as if they were entitled to it. They earned it with their consistency.”
Downing doesn’t like the current voting system for the All-Star Game. He feels the fans have too much influence. He preferred how the baseball writers decided it during his playing career, noting that they voted fairly and went with what they saw with their eyes.
Downing first met Aaron at spring training when he was playing with the Braves in the early 60s. Downing was a Yankee, and he was introduced to Aaron by Elston Howard. Aaron and Howard played together in the minors and negro leagues. Back then, there was no interleague play, so Downing never saw Aaron during the regular season.
Aaron started his career in Milwaukee, and the Braves franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966. Baseball was very new in that area. Football dominated the Southeast region of the United States and it still does today. Before the Braves moved, the Washington Senators were the closest team MLB to Atlanta. In the National League, the Phillies were the closest team.
“People all over the World wanted to know what Aaron was about. His presence changed baseball in Atlanta forever,” Downing, who also wore No. 44, said.
In 1974 the Braves had only been in Atlanta for eight years. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium built in hopes of luring a relocated team or an expansion franchise, hosting the Triple-A Atlanta Crackers in 1965.
“It was one of the few times I remember that stadium being packed,” Downing said of Aaron’s record-breaking dinger. The Braves only made the postseason once to that point, in 1969, so they weren’t a high-demand ticket.
That game, on April 8, 1974, was Downing’s first start of the season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Aaron delivered on a 1-0 fastball that was left up in the zone for the record-breaking 715th home run. The fans went crazy and started rushing the field. Downing was spirited off the field before an on-field ceremony celebrating Aaron’s accomplishment.
Downing was honored to have played against such a great ballplayer like Aaron. They were good friends and remained in touch for many years after their careers. They would meet at various events and award dinners, the last one in 2014. Hank Aaron died at 86 of natural causes on Jan 21, 2021.
“Aaron was not only a great ballplayer, but couldn’t have been a nicer person,” Downing said.
Aaron had an award named after him that was created in 1999 on the 25-year anniversary of his record-breaking home run. The Hank Aaron Award is given to the best offensive performer in the American and National League every season.