When Henry Louis ‘Hank’ Aaron was about to tie and subsequently break a historical mark, back in 1974, in the United States only through the written press, radio and television were the details of this epic deed givenbecause social networks did not exist even in the most futuristic mind of that time, but inside and outside the confines of the American Union fans of baseball they knew something big was about to happen.
Aaron, right fielder for the Atlanta Bravesblack man, born in the segregated state of Alabama, in the city of Mobilecradle of the civil rights struggle of African-Americans to end racial segregation in schools and other areas in the US, all his life he knew what it was to ‘live on three balls and two strikes’.
While the conversation in the cafes, bars, restaurants or workplaces of that time must have been around the historic feat of Aaron trying to tie and break the mark of 714 home runs hit by Babe Ruth —for many the best baseball player of all time— it was impossible not to also talk about a parallel story to the mythical event that was looming: the rampant and ominous racism to which Aaron was subjected.
While baseball writers and pundits, Die-hard fans and casuals alike spoke of how exciting it was to see the Braves outfielder inevitably close in on Ruth’s historic markonce thought to be unbreakable, the very Aaron downplayed the factalthough from the summer of 1973 until the first week of April 1974, when he tied (April 4) and when he broke (April 8) the legendary number of 714 homers, a wave of letters was sent to him.
The team of Atlanta even had to hire a secretary to help Aaron with the piles of letters that piled up in the club’s offices. to show support for him and push him to make history. But also, unfortunately, there were quite a few missives full of hate, racismbringing out the worst that a human being can have.
During the 1973 season—at the age of 39— the possibility of Aaron breaking Ruth’s record was more and more latent. On September 29 of that year, the Braves right fielder hit his 713th home run, falling one short of tying the ‘Bambino’. according to the book Hank Aaron and the homerun that changed America Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America by Tom Stanton Aaron’s only concern was not being alive to see the 1974 season.
By virtue of accomplishing the feat, and following the veiled death threats to Aaron and even the editors and reporters of city newspapers like the Atlanta Journalcalling them ‘nigger lovers’ (expression that can be translated as ‘lovers of blacks’), the Braves hired an Atlanta police officer named Calvin Wardlawwho was in charge of guarding the player wherever he went.
Things were taken so seriously due to the tone of the threatswhat Lewis Grizzardthe then sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, I already had an obituary written, in case Aaron was killed.
“Will this be the year that Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, moonwalks above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sports? Or will it be remembered as the season when Aaron, worthiest of athletes, was besieged by hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in the baseball attic?“, published the magazine Sports Illustrated in its May 28, 1973 issue in an article by journalist William Leggett called ‘The Winding Road to the 715’.
The concerns were justified. In one of the letters they threatened to kidnap Gaile, their daughter. In several others they promised to shoot Aaron in the game in which he could break the mark. The letters that came with this level of hatred were even turned over to the FBI to investigate and find the possible perpetrators.
But that tension ended the night he hit his 715th home run.on April 8, 1974 at the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta in the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he hit a solid drive over the left field fence —place that became a historical monument that remains standing— that unleashed the madness of the stadium while he was touring the bases proclaiming himself as the new king of the home run, unseating Ruth. Many fans jumped onto the field to join in the festivities..
When Aaron came to the plate to accomplish the feat, his mother, Estella declared some time later that the reason why she gave her son a big hug was not out of joy. for what has been achieved, but to serve as a shield in case any sniper wanted to fulfill his dire promise.
The legendary Dodgers broadcaster, vin scully reported at that time: “What a wonderful time for baseball. What a wonderful time for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a wonderful time for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking the record for a baseball idol of all time.
After imposing the new brand, Aaron told a packed stadium: “I thank God that this is over”.
Aaron’s record was 755 homerswhen he retired at the end of the 1976 season, playing for the Milwaukee Brewersa record that remained in force until 2007, when Barry Bonds (762) established the new all-time high for home runs and proclaimed himself the new home run king.
Aaron still holds the all-time RBI mark with 2,297although he often used to say that his favorite stat, after 23 seasons in the major leagues, was that he never struck out more than 97 times in a single season.
In 1982 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.; in 1999 he was named to the Dream Team of the 20th Century; died at the age of 86, on January 22, 2021in Atlanta.
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Hank Aaron, the player who fought against Babe Ruth and for that he was threatened with death