John Shearer: Random Thoughts About O.J., Hank Aaron, And Being An Eighth Grader

  • Monday, April 15, 2024
  • John Shearer

The recent days have brought events related to two towering former sports figures of yesteryear who obviously brought attention to themselves in different ways.

And it came just after Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark was positively redefining the attention given a woman athlete.

As has already been covered well in the news media and by media columnists and commentators offering their own perspectives, April 8 was the 50th anniversary of the late Hank Aaron’s 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth’s career record. And on Wednesday, former star running back, pitch man, actor, and murder trial defendant O.J. Simpson died at age 76.

I believe O.J. Simpson made only one formal visit to Chattanooga, and that was on May 3, 1969, when he spoke at Maclellan Gymnasium and with the Chattanooga Mocs football players in their locker room on campus. His talk was sponsored by the local Mental Health Association, according to David Carroll’s book, “Hello, Chattanooga!”

Bill Landry, who played at Notre Dame High and Chattanooga for a brief period before becoming interested in acting and later hosting the popular “Heartland Series” on TV in Knoxville, wrote a memoir talking about meeting Mr. Simpson here. He said that he had perceived that one staff member had snubbed Mr. Simpson because he was black, and he later sought Mr. Simpson out to apologize and decided afterward that it was no big deal with Mr. Simpson.

At the time, O.J. had recently won the Heisman Trophy for Southern Cal and would go on to star for the Buffalo Bills and as a TV and movie personality before faltering in a life that had as many changes of directions as he did on a football field.

I remember watching a documentary a few years ago where I learned such facts as that O.J. had little association with his gay father, and that the Los Angeles Police Department had a history of perceived mistreatment of black people dating back even before the 1960s. The latter had set the stage for his acquittal in the famous criminal trial in the death of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman at a Brentwood home that was torn down in 1998.

I have not forgotten watching the 1995 verdict on TV at the Chattanooga Free Press where I was working and for some reason not being as disappointed at the not guilty verdict as at least one other colleague, if I have to be honest. Of course, any crime deserves the time, but maybe he had charmed me too much over the years on the field and running through the airport as a pitchman for Hertz. Or maybe it was my own curiosity about black issues, despite being a white man.

Mr. Simpson was in 1997 found negligent in the deaths in a civil trial.

Although I know countless areas where I can daily improve my own life and don’t need to be pointing fingers, it would have been great if Mr. Simpson could have found some way to contribute more positively to society after the criminal verdict and after he was given a second chance.

While it is a memory obviously clouded now by how he lived out the rest of his life, one of my more memorable memories of O.J. as a child was in the last game of the 1973 season at New York City’s Shea Stadium. There, on a snowy field he broke Jim Brown’s single season rushing record and surpassed the elusive 2,000-yard mark in only 14 games. I will never forget the excitement of pulling for him as he neared and broke the record late in the game, and the crowd and his teammates had a celebration for the ages. I was in the eighth grade at the time.

Another memory, of course, was when he was being chased instead of being the record chaser. I must admit that of the famous events in American history in the last 50 years that drew numerous TV viewers, I missed this one, when a suicidal O.J. slowly circled the L.A. freeway on Friday night, June 17, 1994, in friend Al Cowlings’ white Ford Bronco while police followed behind him.

I actually went down to the Riverbend Festival that night and remember the early evening news reports were saying they were still waiting to arrest him, although I had no idea it would involve a chase. And then when I got back home probably between 11 p.m. and midnight, the Bronco chase had just concluded. Oh well, at least I heard some good music from the Neville Brothers and others.

That Ford Bronco, by the way, is now on display at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum just up the road in Pigeon Forge, Tn.

I can proudly say, however, that I was watching on live TV when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record on April 8, 1974, 50 years ago last Monday. I was still in the eighth grade at Baylor, and I can remember being at school when he hit No. 714 to tie the record that Friday afternoon. I somehow had gotten word, or someone had a TV on at school, and I recall telling an older student I did not really know that he had tied the record. Perhaps that was a hint that I should be in the news business because I was wanting to spread breaking news.

And then over that weekend Manager Eddie Mathews – a former Braves teammate – said he was going to sit the outfielder for the remainder of the series and wait until they played Los Angeles at home beginning Tuesday to play him again. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn would have none of that, though, and Mr. Aaron played Sunday, although he did not get a hit.

I can remember watching a few weeks before the season started some kind of show where Mr. Aaron was talking about all the racist threats and letters he had received leading up to breaking the record, although I did not digest all that thoroughly as a 14-year-old.

He was a great player, and that was all that mattered to me, and I remember cheering hard for him to break the record as he did early in that game against the Dodgers, who, like the Reds, were National League West rivals in those days.

I was happy for him and happy to have witnessed history. I as a young white kid interested in playing sports focused simply on trying to emulate athletes with talented skills, whether they were black or white or whatever.

Mr. Aaron would make several promotional visits to Chattanooga over the years after that homer, including twice in 1981, when he spoke to the Boy Scouts at the Read House and opened the branch of American National Bank on East 23rd Street.

Maybe it was because I was getting older or more aware of the world as a 14-year-old, but I still remember quite a few events from the spring of 1974. One was that I broke the wrist area of my arm trying to high jump in my front yard over spring break after I landed awkwardly on some couch cushions I had taken out in the front yard.

I somehow thought I had just sprained my arm, although it was painful, and I remember trying to play a little golf once or twice a few days later before going to Dr. Barry Heywood, who told me the news. I remember running junior high track that spring with a cast and not really feeling like it was slowing me down. I got my first junior high letter that year under coach Sib Evans Jr. at the banquet at Bethea’s Restaurant on Brainerd Road, and I remember how proud I was of myself.

I also remember a series of tornadoes that hit the surrounding counties in early April 1974, events that were remembered recently on Local 3 News for their Hank Aaron-like power.

As a 14-year-old, I also recall that I had certainly not mastered the ways of the world. I remember first starting to get interested in girls, but shyness and not being around them much since girls did not attend Baylor at the time put two strikes against me.

I remember about that time one girl with whom I had attended Bright School called me and asked me to go to a Girls Preparatory School junior high dance. I was so surprised and scared – and maybe not completely interested in going with her at that time -- that I hurriedly blurted out a lie that I was going to be out of town that weekend. You know, that big business trip I had planned was coming up! Ha ha.

That was certainly one of a lot of moments in my life when I wish I could have a do over, as I have not forgotten her disappointed sound on the other end of the line. I remember my mother was in the kitchen looking at me afterward like I could have handled the situation better. Looking back, I probably should have gone with her. And maybe I could have met some other girls or renewed old acquaintances with Bright classmates and been on more confident social footing as I naively moved into the ninth grade and beyond.

I am sure I naturally got more jealous back then as well. It is a trait I thought I had put behind me, but then after I regrettably decided not to drive to the path of totality to see the eclipse last week, I received a couple of emails from people who had gone. I cringed with envy when one said he was still tired from driving to see the eclipse, and another was unable to attend a gathering here because he had been in Arkansas watching the eclipse.

The eclipse is another happening in my life I wish I could have a do over, but I guess all we can do is chug along and not fret too much but be thankful for the times when we do make good decisions, or situations turn out fine or well.

Or we remember to celebrate and cherish when life does bring us a happy moment – like Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run.

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Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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