Hank Aaron’s historic homer much more than one moment in time
Just the mention of Hank Aaron’s name causes my baseball-infected mind to be overloaded with thoughts, memories, and praise for the man who was truly an ambassador of the sport and a glimmer of hope for a nation that was in a civil rights crisis in the mid-1970s
On the morning of Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, Henry Louis Aaron, affectionally known as “The Hammer,” passed from this life into the next at the age of 86, but he left a legacy that stretches across both generational and racial divides.
Aaron’s final season was 1976, the year I graduated from high school. While I got the chance to travel from my childhood home of Louisville, Miss., to my birthplace of Atlanta to watch him play on a handful of occasions, he retired before I was able to engage with him as a reporter. One of my professional regrets is that I didn’t pursue that opportunity during the many years he was a part of the Atlanta Braves organization following his departure from the baseball field.
For the past few days, the interested public has been flooded with Hank Aaron stories, many depicting his humble beginnings in Mobile, Ala.; the fact his career actually began in the Negro American League as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns; and of course his legendary chase of Babe Ruth’s “untouchable” career home run record of 714.
In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to endeavor to share two personal stories about Hank Aaron and his effect on my life. Both took place in 1974, 15 weeks and five days apart.
It was about 6 p.m. on Monday, April 8, 1974. I had just finished supper, hurried through my homework and headed down the road to my friend Brent Richey’s house.
He had invited me to play a new baseball board game he had and to also watch Monday Night Baseball, which would be featuring the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 1974 you normally only got to watch two televised baseball games a week, unless you were in a market that showed the local team. There was no such thing as “cable TV,” much less a satellite dish.
This night was special because Hank Aaron was seeking to break Ruth’s all-time home run mark and become the new “Home Run King Of All-Time.”
We watched the game in Brent’s bedroom, where he had his own television — which in my mind made him rich. While Brent adored the St. Louis Cardinals and loved to make fun of me and my Braves, he was as enthralled with the moment as I was.
Aaron walked without swinging the bat his first time at the plate. Then in the bottom of the fourth inning, with a runner on first and the Braves trailing 3-1, “The Hammer” swung the bat for the first time that night and laced a homer deep into the Atlanta bullpen behind the left-center field fence.
As Aaron started his home run trot — without a bat flip or glaring at the pitcher — it was as though the times were changing before our eyes.
Aaron had finished the 1973 season with 713 homers, one short of tying Ruth’s record. During that offseason, he endured threats upon his life, as well as hate-filled, racially-charged dialogue toward both he and his family. But he never said a word publicly. He just went about his business. As he rounded first base on that fateful night a black man, who began his career in a segregated baseball league for African-American players only, was just three bases from replacing a white man as the most prolific home run hitter of all time.
As he rounded second base, Aaron, who only stood 5-foot-11, and weighed just 185 pounds, looked like a giant. In the current age of baseball most home run hitters are behemoths. Aaron’s power didn’t come from his size, it came from his wrists. He was always quick to give credit for the strength in his wrists to the job he had as a boy and young man loading blocks of ice onto a truck with tongs.
Between his journey between where the shortstop normally plays and his arrival at home plate, he was joined by two young white men who had bolted out of the stands in their enthusiasm to congratulate him as he circled the bases. They were clapping and slapping him on the back. He took a glance at them, and just kept jogging.
Years later my youngest son Bradley — who was about 7 or 8 at the time — was watching a video of Aaron’s home run and he asked the innocent question “Did people always run around the bases with him?” I laughed and said, “No, son. It happened just that one time.” But now, I realize I was wrong. A whole generation of people of all races were actually circling the bases with Aaron every time he hit a homer. He was more than the new home run king, he was a symbol of change, who with humility had begun to alter how people thought of each other.
On July 27, 1974 I arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, then the home of my beloved Braves, to watch them take on the very Dodgers that Aaron had homered against nearly four months earlier.
To make it even more interesting Al Downing, the same pitcher that had given up Aaron’s historic 715th homer, was pitching for the Dodgers that night.
I had hoped against hope to see Aaron hit a homer against Downing, but, alas, it didn’t happen.
The night wasn’t a total disappointment, because in the bottom of the seventh with two men on base, Aaron ripped a line-drive homer off of reliever Rex Hudson that landed behind the outfield fence just to the right of where the infamous 715th had come to rest.
I watched in wonder as Aaron jogged the same path he had traveled earlier that year; I imagined fireworks going off: I imagined young men running onto the field to join him on his jaunt; I imagined the massive celebration that took place following his historic homer. It was nearly 16 weeks later, but I felt I was touching history.
And to this moment it is a place and time Hank Aaron and I share together, whether he realized it or not. He touched me in a special place, just like he had touched so many before.
Aaron finished his career with 755 homers, a mark that was eventually broken by Barry Bonds. Bonds is indeed one of the finest to ever play the game and completed his career with the all-time mark of 762 home runs, but in my mind Aaron will always be the Home Run King.
Although in actuality, his 715th home run came to eventually rest in the glove of Atlanta relief pitcher Tom House, who snagged it in the bullpen after it rocketed over the fence, in the hearts of many it’s still in flight, dragging with it the hopes and dreams of a generation.
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He is currently pastor of Great Commission Assembly of God in Philadelphia, Miss. He may be contacted by email at email@example.com.