“Some people resented the fact I was trying to break a white man’s record.” – Hank Aaron
In 1974, before Ted Turner made the Atlanta Braves baseball team “America’s Team” on his “Super Station” WTBS there was Hank Aaron. Growing up in Charlotte, Atlanta was the closet market with major sports team, and I was a Braves fan though the Falcons weren’t the NFL team I rooted for. For whatever reason the Washington Redskins games were televised in Charlotte over the Falcons. I think that was just the way the NFL geography was divided, keeping the Redskins south rather than north into the New York markets.
I remember vividly Hank Aaron’s home run record hunt in 1974. I was thirteen years old and realized then that he was chasing something that no one ever thought would or could be broken, 714 career home runs, a record set by Babe Ruth. A record that was 40 years old.
The roster of the 1974 Atlanta Braves included stars like the Niekro brothers, pitchers Joe and Phil, Darrell Evans, Dusty Baker, future legendary manager Davey Johnson and of course Hank Aaron. I don’t remember what kind of season the ’74 Braves had because all eyes were on Hank Aaron.
As Aaron crept closer to tying the record, I tried to watch all the Braves games that I could. There were days and nights he was shut out, and others where the ball got to the wall but not over it. I don’t remember seeing the record tying hit live but on April 8th, 1974 my butt was planted in front of the television for number 715.
Hank Arron retired in 1976 playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. His finished his career with 755 home runs, a record that stood until 2007 when it was broken by Barry Bonds. Bonds’ record, in my mind, should have a Steroid asterisk next to it.
What struck me back then was how humble, and soft-spoken Hank Arron was. He pitched a few products. Made a few commercials for local car dealers and occasionally made appearances on talk shows. But the take I had was of a man either terribly shy, or very uncomfortable with his fame or possibly both. It was much later in my life that I learned why Hank Aaron didn’t seek out fame and fortune.
What I learned is that while Hank Aaron stood all alone on Homeplate with a bat in his hand and ball being thrown at him 80 to 90 mph people were threatening to kill him. Although it seemed that all of America was delighted to watch Aaron chase and ultimately break the Babe’s record in truth there were those that weren’t happy that a black man would eclipse a white baseball icon.
Aaron received hate mail, threats that he would be shot in the stadium, his family killed or have his car blown-up. These were not concerns he discussed in 1974. These were not issues that were reported in the press. It would take years for all of this to come-out which today makes his journey and accomplishment even more incredible.
Hank Aaron died today at the age of 86. I would like to think that if Mr. Aaron were chasing the Bambino’s record today that he wouldn’t have to deal with all the racist bullshit that he dealt with back in 1974. Unfortunately, I know that isn’t true. Times have changed but as we have just learned after the last four years, racism in America still exist. Honestly racism still has a strong and sad foothold on America.
As I look back over my 60 years of living, I am thankful for a number of human beings that also lived in those 60 years, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Michael Jordan, and certainly the great Hank Aaron.
“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South”-Vin Scully, Dodgers Announcer