The Folklore Project
Deeds Well Done
By George Lancaster
Dad was a Southern Presbyterian minister — stalwart, serious, and scary. A chip off the ol’ Scot, John Knox. No pleasure exceeded that of drudgery exercised for the better good. Like mowing the lawn. Or washing the dishes. He exhorted by example a drumbeat mantra — unselfish deeds paved the way to heaven. Of course, complaining sent you back to the end of the line.
So, it’s a surprise when he brandishes three tickets — for me, my older brother, and him — in the upper deck for a baseball game at Atlanta Stadium. Sports fandom holds no value in the saving of souls, but he senses something special will happen that night of April 8, 1974. Something beyond mere sports. Something galvanizing, perhaps even culture-changing. Something worth sharing with the two of his five yet living at home.
Out of the blue, really. We weren’t a let’s-go-to-sporting-events-together sort of family. For the most part we didn’t see our dad, as God’s demands never ceased. Especially in his chosen calling, ecumenical relations. In effect, his mission at the Presbyterian Centre, which then occupied an imposing edifice on Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue, was working to forge consensus on issues of human and religious rights with leaders of disparate congregations. Like rabbis, imams, and bishops. And African-American Baptist preachers. Talk about a Sisyphean task. Or in other words, his guaranteed entrée to heaven.
His private work evidenced in his public advocacy for and participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Once, he even hosted a prominent South African activist in our home. Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu came to our house! I was too young to understand the significance, but when I shook Bishop Tutu’s hand and he looked deep into my eyes, I recognized a kindred spirit. Like my dad, he was unselfish deeds personified.
At the stadium, we’re in the nosebleed section opposite the batter’s box. Players, even those closer to us in the outfield, appear no larger than ants. My interest is soccer and my older brother, music, so he and I pretty much keep our attention on everything but what’s taking place on the field. We’re in awe of the surrounding spectacle. A record attendance of 53,775. A sea of blacks and whites, in equal measure, sitting side by side, celebrating together, uniting to bear witness.
As is usual, not everyone is jubilant. There are the ones who mailed death threats. Or sent vile, racist letters to newspapers. And called into radio talk shows to rail against the abomination of a black man eclipsing a white. Pity them for being on the butt end of progress.
A voice from the loudspeaker announces Hank Aaron is at the plate. Everyone stands, and my brother and I follow suit. Moments later, we all collectively sigh and retake our seats, frustrated by the walk. He scores that inning with little fanfare. That’s not what we’ve come to see.
In the fourth inning we’re on our feet again, the roar of the crowd loud enough to split eardrums. First pitch to Hank is a ball. The next pitch we see the swing before we hear the crack of the bat. And then the ball appears in the sky, lofting in the air. It grows larger as it heads toward left center field, where we are. The Dodgers outfielder pedals backward, glove raised. All the way to the wall. The ball sails over his head and into the first tier of stands. And there it is. Number 715, surpassing Babe Ruth’s record. We’re high in the third tier, but the pandemonium is no less intense.
Everyone’s jumping up and down in jubilation obscuring my view. Unable to see Hank’s momentous trot around the bases, my attention is captured by motion in the next row below. An overjoyed young woman is shedding her clothes. Our seats are next to the aisle, and I’m awestruck as she sidles, nude, in front of me before running down and up thirty or so aisle steps. There she is, full frontal, close enough to touch. My 14-year-old brain is overwhelmed by the stimuli of being within reaching distance of my first live-and-in-person naked woman.
As she returns to her seat and starts to dress, Dad says, “Now that’s a worthy deed.”
To this day I don’t know if he was referring to Hank Aaron’s triumph or the woman’s impromptu streaking. But it doesn’t matter. Regardless, it was a lesson well taught.