It was 37 years ago tonight that Hammerin’ Hank hit No. 715. I was 10 years old and the time and remember it clearly. NBC televised the game nationally, so I was watching in my living room when Aaron finally passed the Babe. The next day, a full-page photo of Aaron’s record-breaking swing ran in the New York Times (I think it was an “NBC Congratulates Henry Aaron” ad, or something like that), and I tacked it up on my bedroom wall, where it stayed for several years. And of course I’ve seen video of the homer countless times, just as you probably have.
In short, I thought I’d pretty well internalized and catalogued all the visual details of No. 715. But in Monday’s comments, Rick “Ricko” Pearson mentioned a uni-related aspect to Aaron’s historic shot that I’d never noticed.
First, remember that Aaron had tied Ruth, hitting No. 714, four days earlier — April 4, which was Opening Day in Cincinnati. Let’s compare photos of the record-tying and -breaking home runs:
Aside from the obvious fact that Aaron was wearing a road uni for the first shot and home whites for the second one, notice anything else?
It’s gotta be the shoes!
Ricko says Aaron went back to plain black spikes right after April 8. I haven’t found photographic confirmation of that (good luck finding a photo of, say, Aaron’s 716th home run), but I have no reason to doubt Ricko on this — he was paying attention to this kind of stuff back then. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s take his word for that.
Now, Adidas-striped cleats weren’t unheard of in 1974, but they were uncommon. A few teams wore them as standard-issue footwear — most notably the White Sox, A’s, and Phillies — but that’s because they wore colored shoes, which were still unusual in those days, so a team had limited options. But for the teams that still wore black cleats, logo branding — whether by Adidas, Puma, or whomever — was much more the exception than the rule. Take a look, for example, at this photo of Aaron being mobbed by his teammates after hitting No. 714 on April 4. I count two players with striped shoes: Ralph Garr (wearing No. 48) and one unidentified player buried in the back of the photo. Everyone else is wearing solid black.
So why did Aaron switch to Adidas-striped footwear after tying the record and then, if Ricko is correct, switch back to basic black after breaking it? One potential answer: Maybe Adidas, recognizing a marketing opportunity for an occasion that would be watched by millions, paid Aaron to wear the branded shoes once he was on the threshold of passing the Babe.
If so, it would mean Aaron was a pioneer in yet another way. Shoe endorsements and product placements were practically unheard of in 1974, especially for black athletes (remember, Aaron was getting death threats during the week he tied and broke the record). So did Aaron and Adidas help pave the way for all the shoe shenanigans that have followed? And if Adidas tossed Hank a bit of extra coin, just how much coin are we talking about?
Aaron’s known as a pretty private guy, so my hunch was that he wouldn’t be willing to discuss this, but I wanted to give it a try. He still works for the Braves as a Senior VP, so I pestered their PR department all week long to let me speak with him. I also queried Adidas, although I doubted they’d have any records of this sort of thing.
Meanwhile, as I waited to hear back from them, I contacted Jerry Reuss, who was pitching for the Pirates in 1974. I wanted to get his take on what MLB footwear culture was like back in those days. He had a lot to say on the subject, plus he had his own interpretation of the two Hank Aaron photos:
I see Adidas shoes in both Aaron pictures. In the Cincinnati picture [i.e., home run No. 714], the stripes were covered with shoe polish. Since logos were relatively new on baseball shoes in those days, the clubhouse attendants didn’t pay much attention to the stripes and brushed the liquid shoe polish over the whole shoe.
Just making a guess here, but the Braves traveled from spring training to Cincinnati where they opened in 1974. Hank probably wore the same shoes he wore in Florida, which were Adidas shoes with many coats of black polish. When the Braves played their first homestand against the Dodgers (April 8-11), Adidas probably had a number of new pairs of shoes waiting for Hank and other members of the Braves. Hank, like other players, opened a box of new shoes, laced them and tried them during batting practice. Chances are they were comfortable and Hank wore them for the historic home run. …
As for me, I wore non-logo shoes from Rawlings in 1974-1975. I had a contract with Rawlings that provided a combination of four gloves/shoes, which was standard for most players at the time. During spring training of 1976, Pennsylvania-based Brooks shoes provided spikes for the Pirates’ players. I wore them during the 1976 season.
Other companies saw the light and wanted a piece of the action. I sported Converse for this 1977 picture. When I joined the Dodgers, I switched to Adidas as I had my first shoe contract that included both cash payment and equipment.
All very interesting. I was digesting this when I finally heard back yesterday from Aaron’s assistant, who wrote, “There is no significance [to the change in cleats from 714 to 715], he would just grab a pair out of his locker.” Then I heard back from Adidas: “The archives are in Germany and they said they’d look through them today, but we haven’t heard back from them, unfortunately.” Sigh.
One other thing: While I couldn’t find any photos of Aaron in the days right after he hit No. 715, I did find a fair number of date-specific shots of him from 1974. Here they are, in chronological order:
• March 1: Adidas-striped.
• June 4: Adidas-striped. (Also, note that Ralph Garr, who was wearing Adidas on April 4, is now wearing Puma.)
• June 18: solid black.
• July 8: Adidas-striped, perhaps partially blacked out.
• July 23: Adidas-striped.
• August 14: solid black, but it looks like there are Adidas stripes that have been blacked out.
• Oct. 2: solid black.
Looks like Aaron switched back and forth between being striped and stripe-free quite a bit during that season (perhaps due to some zealous shoe polishing, as Jerry Reuss suggests). So maybe the switcheroo between 714 and 715 was nothing more than one of his many footwear flip-flops in 1974.
One last item: About a month after the ’74 season ended, Aaron went to Tokyo and engaged in a home run hitting contest with Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh. There were some Adidas stripes on display for that event — but they weren’t being worn by Aaron.
Update! An hour or so after this entry was published, the increasingly indispensable Mike Hersh came up with a photo of Aaron wearing Adidas stripes while hitting a home run off of Charlie Hough in April of 1974. A quick peek at Aaron’s career home run log reveals that this was homer No. 716, hit on April 11 — just three days after the record-breaker. So the real story here is — wait for it — Ricko was wrong! Aaron did not go back to basic black after passing the Babe (or if he did, he went right back to stripes again a day or two later).
All of which sorta renders a lot of today’s entry moot. But it was still a fun topic to research.
Another update! Reader Jim Kohler just checked in with this:
During all of the hoopla immediately following number 715, NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy needed to kill some time until the game was resumed. One of the things he talked about was the cleats Hank Aaron was wearing. He said that they had been left behind in the visitor’s clubhouse by Joe Pepitone after the Astros had visited Atlanta. Aaron somehow ended up with the cleats and liked them, so he wore them.
I clearly remember Gowdy saying this because I was a native Long Islander and rabid Yankees fan, and Pepitone was one of my favorite Yankees in the ’60s
Hmmmm — curiouser and curiouser. I’d be interested in finding the full broadcast of that inning, just to see if Jim is right.
Membership update: Scott and I are slowly but surely making our way through the flood of new enrollments that resulted from the recent “Get ’em before the price hike” promotion resulted in a deluge of new membership enrollments, which Scott and I are slowly but steadily processing. I mailed out a bunch of finished cards earlier this week , and now an additional batch of card designs has been added to the card design gallery (including Gregory Koch’s UConn sweatback treatment, shown at right, and also Bob Lane’s Shea Stadium centerfield wall design). The printed versions of those last eight designs in the gallery should be ready to mail out early next week.
As always, you can make the membership scene yourself by signing up here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: In a move that probably doesn’t meet with Michael Pollan’s or Mark Bittman’s approval, Melky Cabrera ate something off of his bat the other day. … “I am a high school baseball coach in Springfield, Ohio,” writes Jordan Shumaker. “Because of a delay in getting our new uniforms, we wore white on the road on Tuesday, which left both teams in all-white unis.” … Odd soccer development the other day, as Eric Hassli of the Vancouver Whitecaps scored a goal and celebrated by removing his jersey — which revealed another jersey underneath. And that’s when things got weird (with thanks to Alex Ozenberger). … Purdue’s mascot is getting another makeover. … The hat police cracked down on Rickie Fowler at the Masters (with thanks to John Kimmerlein). … For years I’ve been after the Mets to ditch the black, but now it looks like they may need to ditch the red as well. Chris Pastore spotted that shirt at a shop in Las Vegas. … The WNBA is switching to Adidas’s Revolution 30 uniform system, and at least two teams will have new uni designs: the Mercury (further info here) and the Mystics, who are adding a jersey sponsor (further info here). … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Someone at SI.com did a really nice job of photo-researching and art-directing this slideshow on relocated franchises. Start clicking thru the photos and you’ll see what I mean. … Check out the 5 on Lance Bouma’s TV number. Looks more like an upside-down 2, no? (Excellent catch by Don T. Smith.) … New soccer ball for the new NASL. … Nice to see Orlando Cabrera wearing stirrups. … Brett Crane notes that Justin Rose’s caddy had some NOB problems yesterday at Augusta. … Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia’s caddy was wearing a Real Madrid undershirt (great catch by Jared Rosen). … Dan Kurtz reports that the Doosan Bears — that’s a Korean baseball team — are celebrating Bears Day on Sunday, with a special uniform for the occasion. … Hmmm, must have been a knuckleballer pitching that day. That photo’s from a sensational trove of over 100 archival baseball photos from the Boston Public Library. … Rick Friedel reports that Nick Markakis was using a white bat last night. … Two interesting old ad found by Mike Hersh: a 1906 ad for boys’ baseball uniforms and a 1919 spot for a golf suit with a “pivot sleeve.” … If you like baseball sweaters even a fraction as much as I do, you’ll love this old White Sox cardigan — mmm, tasty (big thanks to Sam Shipley). … About five years ago I became mildly obsessed with this book about Japanese baseball uniform history, which has really wonderful illustrations (you can see a little something I wrote about it by scrolling down to the “Far East Meets West” section of this ESPN column). Now C. Todd Davis informs me that several of the illustrations from the book have shown up as uni-history timelines for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Hankyu Braves.