Hearing the news that baseball legend Hank Aaron died surely sparked a flood of memories for those of us who grew up in the South long before TBS turned the Atlanta Braves into “America’s Team”.
The Braves transplanted from Milwaukee in 1966 and only managed to make the post-season once in their first 16 years, losing to the Miracle Mets the maiden year of expanded division play in the ’69 NLCS.
Although I rooted for the Mets during this time, the Braves were my second favorite choice during my childhood years. That was because of Henry Louis Aaron and his pursuit of a baseball record many believed – and others despicably hoped – would never be broken.
As Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 career home runs intensified, it brought out the hateful underbelly of our society. He received an onslaught of hostile mail and death threats as he neared Ruth’s record in 1973, motivated out of racially-charged disdain for a Black man attempting to usurp the Babe.
But Aaron never wavered in his quest, demonstrating incredible character, resolve and humility in spite of the vile insults and he endured.
I began tracking Aaron’s pursuit by charting each home run as the ’73 season began with him sitting at 673. I would list the date, the opponent and the pitcher that surrendered each blast that brought him ever closer to 714. Aaron would finish the season with 713 career homers, leading to a winter of great anticipation for the next spring.
The Braves opened the 1974 schedule with an afternoon game in Cincinnati. Sensing something special might unfold that day, I snuck my transistor radio into my 7th grade classes at Tyner Junior High. I stealthily hid the radio while listening to the game during class that afternoon, hoping to hear history in the making.
Aaron did not disappoint my daring risk of getting caught, hitting a home run off the Reds’ Jack Billingham in his first appearance to tie Ruth at 714. I leapt from my seat to the surprise of my teacher, explaining to her what Aaron had just accomplished and the historical relevance. I asked her if I could be dismissed so I could inform the school office so everyone could know.
Although unimpressed by my proclamation and agitated by my interruption, she consented. I burst breathlessly into the office and delivered the news of Aaron’s feat, and asked if they could announce it over the intercom to share the moment with my fellow students. While this likely went against the grain of school protocol, the kind ladies in the office relented to my request and delivered the announcement to all as I walked down the hallway on my way back to class.
I’m not quite sure why I was so enamored with Aaron’s accomplishment to behave in such a manner. Maybe it was just a streak of prepubescent immaturity. Or possibly it was my way to acknowledge the bigger picture of a man achieving a great feat in the the face of intense opposition.
But four days later I was glued to the television when Aaron passed the Babe on a drizzly Monday night in Atlanta. I kept a scorebook to commemorate the historic night, and I even wept as Aaron rounded the bases after depositing Dodgers lefty Al Downing’s 1-0 pitch into the left field bullpen.
Several years later I had the opportunity to meet Aaron after he had retired and moved into a front office position with the Braves. I was a naïve college kid working my way through school as a part-time sports writer for a local paper, and crossed paths with him in the press box at old Fulton County Stadium.
He was humble and kind, and our conversation was brief. As I walked away, it dawned on me that I had been in the presence of greatness.
These buried memories resurfaced when hearing that Aaron had passed. I dug through my old keepsake boxes and uncovered the home run chart and scoresheet I had compiled chronicling his historic march to becoming the home run king. In my mind, Barry Bond’s career total of 762 is tainted due to his allegations of steroid use, so Aaron’s mark of 755 still stands at the benchmark.
Aaron’s death hits home for many of us of a certain generation. I’m thankful to have have witnessed many of his accomplishments, and hearing countless others on my transistor radio. The dignity and class he demonstrated in the face of such hateful opposition marks his legacy as much as the feats he accomplished on the baseball diamond.
Paul Payne can be contacted via email at email@example.com or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne