It wasn’t pre-manufactured hype like “The Decision.” It wasn’t a game like a Super Bowl that virtually every sports fan had planned to watch for months. It wasn’t even an event whose date had long been circled on the calendar as when Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig.
What’s more, unlike his fellow superstar longtime National League rivals Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron wasn’t one of the “did you see that?” players. Aaron was more the “slow and steady wins the race” type.
However, it still seemed like destiny when Aaron stepped to the plate for the host Braves in the fourth inning 37 years ago tonight. NBC’s “Monday Night Baseball” cameras and announcers were there. The opponent, the Dodgers, was the team for which Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier 28 years ago that month. Their starting pitcher, Al Downing, had broken in with Babe Ruth’s team, the Yankees.
And now a black man was on the verge of breaking perhaps sports’ most hallowed record, Ruth’s 714 career home runs. Aaron had received plenty of hate mail and even death threats as he chased the Babe during 1973.
Aaron tied the record on his first at-bat on Opening Day in Cincinnati, but despite playing the rest of the game and in the season’s second contest, he was still stuck on 714 when the Braves returned to Atlanta. It was as if he was saving the big moment for the home fans.
Aaron took Downing deep on his second at-bat back home, igniting a celebration by the Atlanta Stadium record crowd which had come to cheer a black hero just 20 years after Brown vs. Board of Education began the process of integration in Aaron’s native Alabama and a decade after the struggle for civil rights had been at its peak in the South.
In a country torn apart by race, Vietnam, a generation gap and Watergate, Aaron’s admirable accomplishment helped bring Americans together.
The controversy when Aaron’s record was broken in 2007 wasn’t whether Barry Bonds was black or white, but whether he had done so with the help of steroids.
And that’s yet more evidence of how much sports has changed since now-seemingly innocent 1974.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.