On April 8, 1974, Henry Aaron and I both entered new worlds at nearly the same time.
With one swing of his bat that night, Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home run record and 715 became a hallowed number for baseball fans. Aaron also became an even more vehement target for the prejudice he endured while chasing Ruth’s record and on a much lesser level, I learned of the hatred shown to those who differed from the majority.
A few hours before his homer, my parents and I arrived in Arkansas, completing our move from northern Minnesota. I was nervous at the time, not because I was entering a foreign land, but I feared we would not be settled in front of a television set in time to see Aaron play.
Aaron had been my favorite player since I followed baseball. In fact, when I lived in Madison, Wisc., my parents once drove to Milwaukee. As a small child, I heard some tale that Aaron’s wrists were so strong that he could hit a ball through an outfield wall. Of course, it was a fable, but as my parents drove past County Stadium in Milwaukee, I searched the stadium wall for holes to see if the story was true.
We left Minnesota in a snowstorm that put us a day behind our moving schedule and I feared we wouldn’t see Aaron’s historic home run. I knew it was coming and I knew it would be that Monday.
I urged my parents to drive faster as the afternoon began edging toward evening.
We arrived at a home we rented temporarily as we waited for the moving van, and as my parents unloaded the car, I turned on the television set and searched for the game. It was a snowy picture and I had to stand, holding the rabbit-earred antennae to tune in as clear a picture as I could.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Aaron hit his home run in the fourth inning off L.A. Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. I was ecstatic. I had seen history and, even at the age of 13, I knew it was something I’d hold on to for a life time.
I still consider Aaron as my favorite player. Above my bed now, I have a picture of that 1974 home run. Most people have pictures of Jesus or John F. Kennedy in prominent places. I have a baseball player as my shrine.
After he hit his blast, I wrote in a baseball book I had that Aaron was the “Home Run King” and I drew fireworks around his picture (remember, I was 13 then).
I took the book to school a few days later on my first day there. A classmate asked to look at the book and when he saw the picture, he looked at me with disgust. “What are you,” he drawled in a thick southern accent. “A N----- lover?”
I was stunned. I never thought of race when I thought of Aaron. He was a baseball player. He was simply Henry Aaron. He transcended race.
I had my own accent back then; with my northern accent, I sounded like an extra from the movie “Fargo,” and I endured my own type of prejudice. I was made fun of for the way I talked. By no means I am comparing what I went through with Aaron’s life. I didn’t even know he received death threats and was constantly under attack because of his race until I read books about his career years later. But I gained somewhat of a perspective, albeit very minor, of what he had to live through.
But while my own attacks continued in the school, I did have some comfort. I knew that, despite the ignorance of the students at the school, I saw something historic and I relished in that. It helped.