COMMENTARY | If Hollywood were to do a movie about Hank Aaron’s life, there would be heroes and villains, just like the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson’s life. But this time, the characters playing those roles would be different.
When Hank Aaron sought to break Babe Ruth’s record, he spent the 1973 season zeroing in on the record. But he came up just shy of setting the mark, ending the year with 713 home runs. That made it a tough offseason for “Hammerin’ Hank.” He had all the pressure from the media about whether he could do it. He received some death threats from those who didn’t want him breaking Ruth’s record. That’s because Ruth was white and Aaron is black.
But not all Georgians were opposed to Aaron. Faye Riddle, a computer science professor, recalled how excited most people in Georgia were about the prospects of setting the record. She had a personal reason to be pumped; her husband had been a minor league catcher in the Braves farm system.
They weren’t the only ones. In fact, the local community seemed to embrace Aaron and the excitement the home run chase brought to the city, whose Atlanta Braves had only made the playoffs once (in 1969) and whose Atlanta Falcons had no Super Bowls and only a playoff appearance or two.
Braves Coach Eddie Matthews, Aaron’s teammate from the 1957 Milwaukee Braves World Series Champions, wanted to sit Aaron down on the road in the Cincinnati Reds Riverfront Stadium, so he could break the record at home.
But that’s when Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in. “Kuhn not only said Aaron had to play on the road, but he filled out the lineup card for the Braves, inserting Aaron’s name in the lineup,” said Dr. Chuck Kraemer, an Atlanta Braves fan who was at the University of Georgia in Athens at the time of the great home run chase.”We were all worried that he would break the record on the road, and we wouldn’t get to see it.”
Sure enough, on Opening Day, Aaron blasted one off Reds starter Jack Billingham, a veteran of the World Series. That tied the record set by the great Babe Ruth. But thankfully for Braves fans, the record was still tied when the Atlanta Braves met the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, 1974.
You’d think after taking such a personal interest in when Aaron played and when he didn’t that Commissioner Kuhn would be at the game, maybe to publicly congratulate Aaron, and perhaps shake his hand. But Kuhn stayed away from Atlanta. Stories say he was in Cleveland that night, though one is unsure what special significance could be found at an Indians game in 1974, when the all-time home run record was on the line down in Atlanta. But that’s okay. Commissioner Bud Selig will be on hand April 8 at Turner Field to commemorate history
Dr. Kraemer joined a packed house in cheering when Aaron crushed that pitch. He still proudly displays the ticket from that night in his office, along with a certificate given to all fans who witnessed the game, when the Braves came from behind to beat the Dodgers, a talented team that would play in the World Series later that season.
The jubilant fans, some of whom even rushed out on the field to pat him on the back as he rounded the bases can still be heard, along with Dodgers play-by-play icon Vin Scully, as Al Downing joined a small group of pitchers who gave up historic home runs.
Aaron expressed relief at the record breaking moment was over, glad to see an end to the pressure, death threats, and the looming shadow of a baseball commissioner who usurped his friend and manager’s authority, clearly trying to diminish the moment when a great event in race relations occurred in the Deep South to cheering fans of all types were on hand.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.