How a 39-year-old Hank Aaron surprised everyone

Scott Cunningham

Only 41 home runs away from tying Babe Ruth's record, Hank Aaron put together a '73 season that ranks among the greatest ever for a geriatric hitter. It's a good thing fans were able to enjoy it.

The surprise season -- the out-of-nowhere, "how did he do that?" season -- has always been one of the best things about baseball, a flash of lightning that brightens and sharpens our collective memories. Babe Ruth out-homering all but six teams in 1919. Hack Wilson knocking in 191 runs. Mickey Mantle introducing himself to the world. Ted Williams' final hurrah. Frank Robinson proving the Reds wrong in 1966. The Miracle Mets. Mark Fidrych. Fernando Valenzuela. Heck, baseball is such a great sport that even a man who was, at the time, second on the all-time home-runs list could still manage to surprise us...

There were two notable topics worth discussing when Hank Aaron arrived at the ballpark on Opening Day of the 1973 season. First, with 673 career home runs, he was only 41 four-baggers away from catching Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" record. It was, theoretically, a number Aaron could match or exceed before the season ended. After all, he had bested that total six times in a season already, with his career high of 47 coming only two years prior. What was one more year?

The other notable topic? Hammerin' Hank was 39 years old. That's no spry age even today, with our regimented weight training and nutritional supplements, let alone in the bygone era of bell-bottoms and The Partridge Family. No one Aaron's age had ever come close to hitting 40 home runs. Not that he probably knew it then, but the record for players aged 39 or older prior to the 1973 season was 30 home runs. And it wasn't the Babe, or the Mick, or even the Splinter who owned it. No, the record was set in 1927 by Phillies center fielder Cy Williams, at 39. Next was 41-year-old Ted Williams, who hit 29 homers in 1960.

When Hank Aaron got to the ballpark that morning, 162 games from the record books, only five men in history had hit even 25 home runs at his age. Not only was it highly unlikely that Aaron would come close to reaching Babe Ruth's 714 home runs that year, it was a stretch to say that he could reach 700. Sure, this was Hank Aaron, but time catches up to everyone. Why would a 39-year-old Aaron be any different?

Well, he was.

The man who would be Home Run King hit 40 home runs in 1973. Forty. He finished the season with 713 homers, one tantalizing home run shy of Ruth's record. Career number 700 came on July 21; Cy Williams' record fell a few weeks later. A 16-game homerless drought between Nos. 701 and 702 was the longest of the season. It was a great year all around for Aaron, as he finished with a .301/.402/.643 line to go with his 40 homers.

And, again, Hank Aaron was 39 years old.

When we look back at Aaron's final march to the Babe, it's those shining moments early in 1974 that we think of. Hitting No. 714 in his first at-bat of the season in Cincinnati. Returning home to Atlanta a few days later to break the record in his second at-bat of the game. The two fans running out of the stands to share the moment with him. All of this after spending the winter with the weight of history sitting on his shoulders. One night is a long time to wait to meet your destiny; Hank Aaron spent six months waiting for his.

The 1974 season was indeed special, but none of it would have been possible if not for Aaron's age-defying play in 1973. Like a weary dad driving 1,000 miles in one day so his young daughters can cheerfully run through the Disneyland gates the moment they open the next morning, Aaron's 40 homers in '73 are what made those first two in April so special. It sounds silly to be impressed with a 40-homer season from the man with 755 taters, but this one was definitely something else. Hank Aaron's 1973 season is one of the most amazing, surprising seasons of all time.

It's a good thing Aaron managed to accomplish this feat forty years ago, when we still knew how to get excited over a surprising season. The two most recent players to even come close to Aaron's Age 39 season -- Barry Bonds and Steve Finley, both 39 in 2004, hitting 45 and 36 home runs, respectively -- are viewed a bit differently today than Aaron ever was. Of course, there are legitimate, systemic reasons for the suspicions that we are so quick to cast on players having unexpected years, but that doesn't make those suspicions any less unpleasant. What should bring fun and excitement tends instead to bring questions and accusations. Baseball would be a better game if we could allow ourselves to enjoy these surprising seasons for what they are, rather than fear what they might be.

Fans of Jose Bautista and Chris Davis would certainly agree with that.

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