An era in Atlanta Braves history ended 45 years ago this week.
It was on Nov. 2, 1974, that the Braves officially cut ties with the man who had become synonymous with the franchise over the preceding 20 years. Atlanta traded Hank Aaron, who had set baseball’s all-time home run record earlier that year, to the Milwaukee Braves for outfielder Dave May and a player to be named later.
The deal sent Aaron back to the city where he first achieved fame. He had joined the Milwaukee Braves as a 20-year-old rookie in 1954, and starred for the team for 12 seasons before they moved to Atlanta in 1966.
The trade was not exactly shocking, as it had been rumored for several weeks. And with Aaron then about to turn 41 years old and increasingly limited defensively, a move to the American League where he could serve as a designated hitter — a rule adopted in that league in 1973 — seemed like a no-brainer.
Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, but his skills were fading by season’s end. He played in just 112 games for a good Braves team that year, hitting .268/.341/.491 with 20 homers (the second-lowest number of his career).
Aaron’s 69 RBIs were the fewest since his rookie season, and he was often replaced late in games for defensive purposes by 21-year-old speedster Rowland Office. In the Oct. 2, season finale, he hit his final home run as a Brave — the 733rd of his career, a seventh-inning shot off Cincinnati’s Rawly Eastwick.
It was prior to that game that Aaron told reporters, “I may play again, but tonight will be my last game in the Braves’ uniform.”
Aaron had apparently toyed with the idea of retiring then and there, and joining the Braves’ front office. But he said he felt insulted when he was offered only a public relations position, rather than a job in the baseball operations department. (The Atlanta Constitution’s Wayne Minshew theorized that the job Aaron really wanted was that of general manager, which was then held by Eddie Robinson).
“I make $1 million from (television manufacturer) Magnavox and I don’t need any more public relations,” Aaron told The Sporting News’ Lou Chapman, adding that he wouldn’t be anyone’s “house boy.”
He requested a trade instead, and gave the Braves permission to negotiate with only the Milwaukee Brewers. And yet, in the days leading up to the deal, Aaron played coy.
“I’d like to finish my career wherever I’m wanted,” Aaron told reporters at a charity dinner in New York on Oct. 29.
But Brewers owner Bud Selig, an old friend of Aaron’s from their Milwaukee days, was working furiously behind the scenes to make the deal happen. Selig spoke with Braves chairman Bill Bartholomay, as he related in a 2019 conversation with Rob Neyer on the SABRCast podcast.
“I talked to Bill Bartholomay,” Selig said. “… He said, ‘well, I think we can make a deal. But you’ve got to talk to Hank.’ I went down to Atlanta and the first thing Henry said to me, ‘Buddy, I’m not the same guy I was 20 years ago.’ … I wish a lot of people could have seen him in the 50s. He hit rockets to right, right-center. You had to see it to believe it.”
The trade was formally announced while Aaron was out of town, having traveled to Japan to participate in a Home Run Derby exhibition against international champion Sadaharu Oh. Aaron won that contest 10 home runs to nine, and claimed a $50,000 prize.
Aaron told reporters in Japan he was “thrilled” both that he would be returning to Milwaukee and that the Braves had honored his request to be traded.
“We’re happy to give Hank this opportunity in accordance with his wishes to become a designated hitter with the Brewers,” Bartholomay told the Atlanta Constitution. “Needless to say, he is the greatest Braves’ player of all-time.”
In return for Aaron, the Braves received May, a 30-year-old who’d been an All-Star with Milwaukee in 1973 when he hit 25 home runs. However, he was coming off a terrible 1974 season in which he batted just .226/.273/.325 with 10 homers in 135 games.
“I was surprised, yes,” May told The Sporting News. “Me for Hank Aaron. He is one of the best in baseball. I had been wondering about it, though. I realized a trade for Hank was going to be made and that somebody had to go.
“I had a bad year last season, so I knew it was possible that I would be the one. But even though I kind of expected to be traded, well, me for Hank Aaron still stunned me.”
May batted .245/.330/.398 in 187 games over two seasons with the Braves, working as part of a four-man outfield rotation with Office, Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker. Following the 1976 season, he was traded with four other players to the Texas Rangers as part of a package that brought former American League MVP Jeff Burroughs to Atlanta.
(The player to be named later from the Aaron trade wound up being 20-year-old minor-league starting pitcher Roger Alexander, who was dealt to Atlanta in December 1974. Alexander pitched professionally until 1979, but never made the majors).
After winning 88 games and finishing third in the National League West Division in Aaron’s final season, Atlanta slipped to 67-94 and fifth place in 1975. The Braves also suffered at the gate without The Hammer, as attendance dropped from 981,085 in 1974 to 534,672 the following season.
Aaron’s homecoming in Milwaukee was not exactly triumphant, as his age and departure from the friendly confines of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium exacerbated his diminishing power. He played in 137 games in 1975, but only 85 in 1976, batting .232/.326/.360 with 22 homers and 95 RBIs in 222 games (only four of them in the outfield).
That would be it for Aaron as an active player, as he retired with a record 755 home runs, 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases. The latter two numbers remain all-time MLB records, the home run total has been surpassed by only Barry Bonds’ 762.
Shortly after the 1976 season ended, Aaron joined the Braves as vice president in charge of player development, essentially the team’s minor league system director. Ted Turner had bought the Braves in late 1975, and installed Bill Lucas — Aaron’s former brother-in-law — as the first African-American general manager in baseball history. (Aaron was still owed more than $300,000 by the Braves as part of a deferred contract payment, so his joining the team’s front office in some capacity was probably a fait accompli).
Aaron apologized for any bad feelings when he left Atlanta, including when he said upon returning to Milwaukee that it was nice “to be back in the major leagues.” Aaron said his statement was not directed at the city of Atlanta, but refused to say of whom he had been speaking.
“I feel like I’m going back to 1954, like a rookie,” Aaron said. “I’m going to be willing to learn and hope I can fulfill my role like I did on the playing field.”
Aaron spent the remainder of the decade in his role as Braves farm director, before moving to the position of senior vice president and assistant to the club president in late 1980 (he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982). At age 85, he is still employed by the team, albeit in a largely ambassadorial role.
But 45 years ago this week, the Braves’ relationship with their most iconic player was at least temporarily strained.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperOfRecord.com); Newspapers.com; SABR Bio Project