When I heard the news Friday that Hank Aaron had passed away, it was news I knew would eventually come, but we’re never ready to lose icons we’ve known our entire lives.
That’s exactly what Henry Louis Aaron was — an icon. He was not only baseball giant to the folks in Braves country, but to the entire nation. He’s a baseball Mount Rushmore face, a hall of famer and a sports legend. But Hank was so much more than that.
Other than perhaps Birmingham, no city in the nation was more important to the Black civil rights movement than Atlanta. There’s no denying that the “city too busy to hate” was the de facto capital of the struggle for black equality in America.
Ever since it was burned mostly to the ground during Sherman’s march to the sea, Atlanta has been no stranger to major events in the area of race relations. The city was home to Martin Luther King Jr. and a whole host of other major civil rights luminaries.
Georgia’s capital city had already withstood major race riots 60 years before the Braves relocated south from Milwaukee. It was in the wake of these tragedies that it was decided the city was simply too important and too busy to go through the self-imposed burdens of the customs and courtesies of segregation in a traditional sense. Atlanta citizens and business owners — both black and white — also acknowledged the negative financial impact an unsettled racial divide had caused inside the South’s largest economic and transportation hub.
Racism, of course, was alive and well by the time Hammerin’ Hank Aaron came to Georgia, but there couldn’t have been a better location for a black man to break a white baseball icon’s home run record. Atlanta had been groomed to handle Aaron and his inevitable feat. The timing was as perfect as Hank’s swing.
The city of Atlanta had already gotten its feet wet in segregated sporting events as early as 1949 when Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella brought the Brooklyn Dodgers to Ponce de Leon Park to play the Atlanta Crackers. During Aaron’s record breaking run, Georgia Tech started the first black quarterback in major college football when Eddie McAshan took the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 1970. Aaron grew up in the segregated South, and a place like Mobile, Alabama gave him the social and cultural education he needed to deal with hatred and bigotry later in life.
Once it became evident that Hank was closing in on the longstanding home run record of the legendary New York Yankees slugger, the spotlight became a flash point for hatred towards Aaron in the form of threats and hate mail from all across the United States, certainly not just from the Southeast.
The love for baseball, however, and the love for the first Major League Baseball team Georgia and the entire Southeast could call their very own somehow allowed the sport to overcome hate. Sports, as they often do, brought people together and a lot of them realized that they were all just that … people.
Men like my grandfather, who made it all the way through high school before integrated classrooms, made sure his kids got to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves, and to witness Hank play in person. Men and women young and old, rich and poor, hog farmers and lawyers … none could avoid the magic of baseball and the community of fans that the sport requires to function at its best.
On April 8, 1974 when Aaron was rounding the bases after his record-breaking 715th long ball, two young college students from Atlanta broke past security and unexpectedly escorted the new home run king part of the way around the bases. Two average young white men were so elated about a baseball stat that they risked arrest to congratulate a middle-aged black man right then and there. Baseball did something laws couldn’t do, something a war couldn’t fully do more than a century before. The game of baseball brought people together, and in a whole lot of cases they never fully went back to the way things used to be. How could they?
I contend that Hank Aaron owns just as important a piece of the civil rights pie as any other major figure involved during the 60’s and 70’s. He may not have marched to Selma, but he quietly and respectfully traveled with his teams to segregated cities, staying in separate hotels and eating at different restaurants. Hank Aaron didn’t preach to tens of thousands from the National Mall in Washington, but he showed up every single day and gave it his all at the ballpark, compiling total numbers that couldn’t be ignored by even the most racist fans or colleagues.
Kids born and raised during Hank’s career would grow up choosing to believe the feeling of love they got watching him play rather than the bigoted things they may have heard spoken about him around the dinner table. Sport has that ability sometimes; the ability to transcend trouble and hardship, and to make strangers hug and enemies join together to cheer and feel compassion and respect for rivals.
I grew up in the 80s and Dale Murphy was my hero, but my parents made sure the very first autograph their baseball obsessed son got as a gift was a ball signed by the home run king. It is still my most prized sports possession and it sits beside me on my desk as I type this.
Nearly 50 years later, as we watch the video of Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run and we think of Atlanta Braves and baseball history, consider the moment’s larger social impact. The next time you think of number 715, give some thought to the role that swing played in American history, because it was certainly bigger than baseball.
The king is dead. Long live the king!