Old Glory and the National pastime

It was a Monday night in April and my parents let me stay up past bedtime to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

It was a special occasion: Hank Aaron trying to smack his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth and become the greatest home run hitter in baseball history. 

I was 9, sports obsessed and Aaron ranked high on my personal list of baseball diamond gods. The thickest book in my possession was a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1,500 pages of statistics through which I could wander for hours.

Aaron’s metronomic consistency with the bat kept me riveted. He never hit 50 homers in any season, but across two decades Aaron never hit fewer than 20. His was a sustained excellence, year upon year. And he was never greater than at 9:07 p.m. on April 8, 1974.

The pitch from Al Downing that became number 715 was a high fastball Aaron arced into the left field bullpen. Aaron began his stiff-legged trot around the bases as madness descended. As he rounded second base, he was joined by two white teenagers jogging beside him like maniacs. 

Years later, I would learn that one of Aaron’s two bodyguards, Atlanta Police Detective Calvin Wardlaw, had to make a conscious decision not to grab his service weapon out of his binoculars case. 

As Wardlaw told the New York Daily News in 2007: “My instinct was at that moment that even if I could have gotten out there, my man was not in danger. And I tell (people who ask) something else: What if I had decided to shoot my two-barreled .38 at those two boys, if I thought he was in a life-threatening situation, and had hit Hank Aaron instead, on the night he hit Number 715?”

Wardlaw had witnessed firsthand what the rest of us learned about only on the sports pages and TV news: the vicious hatred Hank Aaron received for approaching Ruth’s record. 

Aaron got so much mail the U.S. Postal Service gave him an award for receiving more letters than any other American. Many of them were racist death threats Wardlaw would forward to the local office of the FBI. 

In his autobiography, Aaron shook his head at this exposure to the worst of humanity: “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” he wrote. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”

Almost a half century later, this country seems no closer to getting over our collection of hatreds. Back then, when I was 9, I had no concept of what Hank Aaron had been through as the first Black baseball superstar in the deep South. 

To me, Aaron was many things — a Gold Glover, an All-Star, a cleanup hitter, Number 44 — but none of what he meant to me involved the color of his skin. 

In some ways, those were gentler times. A kid in Queens, New York, could grow up thinking there were two kinds of people in the world: evil racists who mailed Hank Aaron letters warning him they would kill him if he hit one home run too many, and the rest of us. 

Aaron passed away at 86 on January 22. Many of us continued to worship his excellence long after his baseball career ended. We did so because Aaron, in his persistence, his fight for equality, and his refusal to be intimidated by hatred, was even more heroic off the baseball field than he was on it.