John Shearer: Remembering Hank Aaron And His 1981 Visits To Chattanooga
Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - by John Shearer
Since baseball great Hank Aaron’s death last Friday at age 86, I was reminded in the various news reports of the unfortunate racist letters and threats he received as he neared Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974.
A Black man was about to eclipse a seemingly unattainable record belonging to probably the most popular white athlete of a pre-World War II America that had been segregated in many ways.
And the feat Mr. Aaron accomplished on April 8, 1974, when he surpassed Mr.
Ruth in total home runs – 715 -- maybe did as much as any civil rights law to show that all prizes in America were now available to everyone in this country.
I know as a white 14-year-old raised in Chattanooga who was much more interested in the skills of an athlete than skin color, I was wildly cheering for him, as countless others my age were.
I was an eighth grader at the Baylor School, and I remember still being at school when I heard that Mr. Aaron had hit a tying home run in an afternoon game at Cincinnati at the start of the season before being sat down so he could break the record in Atlanta, a move that was later thwarted by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
I remember passing along the news to another student about the home run, and he seemed interested as well.
Then, when Mr. Aaron broke the record at night in Atlanta when I was home watching, I cheered him on again, and later heard the story about the two teenagers from Waycross, Ga., who on a dare had decided to run the bases with him. They were briefly arrested and went on to enjoy responsible lives and reunited with Mr. Aaron in 2010.
The next day, I remember my civics teacher, Ray Deering, talking about taking News-Free Press sports editor Allan Morris to the game.
I also remember seeing Mr. Aaron play in person a few years before that, and my father, Wayne Shearer, telling me that he hit a home run about every fourth game on average. I can’t remember if I saw him hit a home run in person, but it seems like I did.
As the years would pass, I would always cherish that memory of his breaking the record, while hearing stories of his classy manner and such tales that he batted cross-handed early in his career and that some wondered if Giants great and contemporary Willie Mays was actually the better all-around baseball player.
I also learned that Mr. Aaron had grown up two years younger than a fellow Mobile resident named Vince Dooley. Coach Dooley had also migrated to the Peach State and became the successful football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.
I always thought it was destiny that Hank Aaron ended up in Atlanta in 1966 and not a Northern or Western city, as his accomplishments seemed to carry even more weight there from a civil rights perspective.
While I know numerous nice national and local stories have already been written about him as a player and person, I wanted to try and document all the times he might have come to Chattanooga.
I know in the 1990s I came across some stories about him playing at Engel Stadium with Jackie Robinson and some other Black all-stars, as well as making possibly other visits. I ended up writing a story about my research for the Chattanooga Free Press, but I could not find it this week.
With the help of Suzette Raney from the Local History and Genealogy Department at the Chattanooga Public Library, I did learn of a couple of times he came to Chattanooga in 1981.
On Jan. 27, 1981, he spoke to a Cherokee Council Cub and Boy Scout banquet at the Read House, telling the Scouts and leaders that he had been a Boy Scout in Mobile growing up and remembered having to direct traffic on a busy street corner as part of his Scout volunteer work.
“Being prepared (the Scout motto) has stayed with me all these years,” he was quoted as saying by Chattanooga News-Free Press reporter Steven Epley.
He also held a press conference in the Continental Ballroom of the hotel and praised the potential of then-Braves standout Bob Horner.
Mr. Aaron was also photographed on the front page with local Cub and Boy Scouts Bobby Brookshanks, Rickey Goldberg, Scott Rouse, Wade Taylor and John Rouse.
Just six months later, on July 16, 1981, Mr. Aaron was on hand to dedicate the opening of a new local branch of the American National Bank, now Truist Bank, at 2201 East Third St. Some 500 people – many more than expected -- showed up in the sweltering hot sun to see him and possibly get an autograph.
Due to the large crowd and for safety concerns amid the heat, including worries that he would have to sign so many autographs, officials kept the ceremony inside, much to the disappointment of the crowd, Times sports writer Wirt Gammon Jr. reported. Some fans had arrived two or three hours early, and some succumbed to the temperatures. American National Bank officials apologized that the plans got messed up with the large crowd and weather.
Some 800 baseball caps were given away, and members of the Glenwood Neighborhood Association did get to meet with him. He was also presented a key to the city by Chattanooga Mayor Pat Rose inside.
To disperse the crowd, a car was brought up to the front door and he climbed into it and left. But being the great goodwill ambassador he was, he did not depart until he heartily waved at the crowd.
As was obvious, seven years after his memorable home run blast and for the rest of his life, he was a larger-than-life person and true American hero.
And the large crowd of Chattanoogans who gathered on East Third Street were quite aware of that.