April 8 marks the 40th anniversary of Henry Aaron passing Babe Ruth as the major league’s career leader in home runs. It was one of the most significant sports feats of the 20th century, and like many others—heavyweight Joe Louis’ defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938 and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, to name just a couple—it was deeply connected with the history of race in the United States. My own memories of the night Aaron hit home run No. 715 against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing are still quite vivid. But the story began for me nearly a year earlier, when my father took me to see Aaron in person.
Baseball, gospel quartets and fried eggs largely defined the parameters of my relationship with my dad for the 43 years we shared the earth. My dad was a Willie Mays man—and when the aging superstar was traded to the New York Mets, it dictated that I would become not only a Mays man but also a Mets fan, despite growing up minutes away from Yankee Stadium.
As a Georgia boy, my father had a deep respect for Aaron, whose Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. Though many assumed that it would be Mays who would ultimately pass Ruth as the all-time home run king, by the early 1970s it was clear that the remarkably consistent and low-key Aaron (whom some sportswriters often referred to as slow or lazy) was going to make the most serious run. Indeed, my father’s own demeanor was much like Aaron’s, in contrast with the flashy Mays.
When Aaron’s Braves visited New York in July 1973, my dad made sure we were in the stands, catching the finale on Sunday, July 8. Understand, 1973 was a pretty amazing year for a young New York sports fan: In the spring of that year, the Knicks won the last of their NBA championships and the Mets made an improbable run to the World Series. O.J. Simpson, playing for the Buffalo Bills, would break the single-season rushing record on a snowy December day at the same Shea Stadium where my dad and I sat that day in July. Yet what I remember most about that year was watching Aaron hit two home runs against my beloved Mets.
I not only became a “Hammerin’ Hank” fan that day—checking the box scores daily, from then on, to see how close Aaron was to Ruth’s elusive 714—but it also marked the beginnings of my consciousness as a race man.
Aaron finished the 1973 season two homers short of Ruth’s record. I was in elementary school during opening day 1974 when the Braves played the Reds in Cincinnati. The game was played on what was the sixth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the young activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson famously implored Aaron to request a moment of silence for King before the game. The Reds declined.
Perhaps the best measure of Aaron was that so few knew about the hate mail he received ad nauseam throughout his pursuit of the mark. Though Roger Maris also faced such hate when he was making his move on Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, it was clear that race—and, more specifically, a changing racial order—also motivated much of the hate directed at Aaron. As Tom Stanton notes in his book Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America, many of Aaron’s younger black teammates, notably Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker, cite Aaron’s handling of the pressure associated with his drive to the record as a model for how they went on to comport themselves as black men in professional sports.
My dad was working the afternoon Aaron hit 714; it was my job to fill him in the next morning. We would have a similar conversation about such achievements a year later when Frank Robinson, one of Aaron’s peers, became the first black manager in Major League Baseball in 1975—almost 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. And there was yet another conversation nearly 20 years after that, when Cito Gaston, who played against Aaron and Frank Robinson, became the first black manager to win a World Series, managing the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back crowns in 1992 and 1993.
Such memories of the achievements of black baseball players seem almost quaint in an era when the sitting president of the United States is of African descent, and some of the most visible and highly compensated performers and athletes are African American. But for my 8-year-old self, that home run Hank Aaron hit meant everything. It still does.