A Boy, His Granddad and the Monumental Courage of Henry Aaron
by Joe Samuel Starnes
I was seven years old and my grandfather, who had not yet been diagnosed with leukemia and did not know he had only two years to live, was seventy-two when Hank Aaron stepped up to the plate to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.
For more than a year Granddad and I had been tracking Aaron’s climb up this Mount Everest of baseball statistics. No other player, not even the legends, had come close to hitting 714 home runs: Willie Mays ended his career with 660, while Mickey Mantle had finished with 536.
Ruth had retired from baseball in 1935 and died in 1948 but decades later remained an unassailable icon, flush with nicknames that lived vividly in the American imagination: the Babe, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. He is credited with no less than canonizing the home run, anchoring the preternatural status of the New York Yankees franchise, and cursing the rival Boston Red Sox to a century of futility. He still ranks on most lists as the greatest player who ever played the game.
But by April 1974, Aaron, who had grown up in Mobile, Ala., played in the Negro Leagues, and moved into the majors as the Civil Rights Movement began, sat poised to knock the Sultan of Swat down into second place.
We were white folks with deep roots in Cedartown, Ga., 72 miles northwest of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, nine miles from the Alabama line. Joe Ellis Hopper, my maternal grandfather for whom I am named, was a lifelong lover of baseball and a Braves fan from the time the team moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. The Braves displaced his beloved Atlanta Crackers, a minor league team, to became the first major league team in the Deep South.
I grew into Braves fandom as I learned to talk and to walk. Some of my earliest memories of my grandfather have me sprawled across his lap in his easy chair. He would rub my back as we watched the Braves in their old light blue uniforms with the small lowercase a.
As my dad tells it, my grandmother had insisted that she and my grandfather move from the country into town when my mother and aunt were born in the late 1930s. They had no sons, and she wanted city girls. So Granddad left the farm behind and went on to spend 34 years as a mechanic – known as a “fixer” – on the second shift at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber factory, answering the call of the mill’s work whistle that echoed three times a day throughout the modest neighborhood where they lived. He preferred the second shift because he could go fishing or hunting or work in his garden during the day and spend time with me – his first, and for almost eight years, only grandson.
He was the most easygoing man I’ve ever known. He never seemed to be in a hurry. In the afternoons, he sat on his back steps, smoking one cigarette after another, looking over his yard where he’d squeezed a productive vegetable garden into a space that wasn’t much more than 50 by 100 feet. I remember long plumes of smoke gliding out of his nose and dissipating into the blue sky.
When baseball season opened in 1974, my grandfather and I were ecstatic about Aaron’s home run chase. We were not alone. Everyone in my second grade class was talking about Hank. I can still hear my friend John Kelley saying, “He’s gonna get it tonight!” My grandfather had given me a poster for documenting Aaron's home runs that must have come with the newspaper. It included a section to write down when and where he hit each home run and the name of the pitcher. The poster carried over from the previous season because Hank ended 1973 one home run from tying Ruth. I kept it as accurately as a 7-year-old could.
Hank tied Ruth on opening day, his first swing of the 1974 season. I don’t remember the at-bat — it was a daytime game in Cincinnati — but I remember vividly the record-breaking swing four nights later in Atlanta. The ball flew over the left centerfield fence and I rushed to write it down. If I hadn’t lost the poster, the scrawled pencil lead would tell you that Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the pitcher who served Hank the ball he hit out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974.
I do still have the baseball Hank signed for me four years later in 1978 when he visited the grand opening of the Magnavox television store in Riverbend Mall in Rome. Rome was the nearest city with the sophisticated luxuries that Cedartown lacked, such as a choice of restaurants and a mall. My mother took me. When we got there, we learned he would sign only baseballs. You couldn’t get him to sign notebook paper — being novice autograph seekers, that was our plan — so Mom ran to a store in the mall while I waited in line. She returned with a softball, believing that the larger ball gave him more room for his penmanship. I held out for a baseball, and she went back to buy one. I’m glad I insisted and did not insult the home run king with a softball.
By that time, Hank had been retired from playing for two years and my grandfather had been dead almost two years. My dad saved the article about Hank’s visit from the Rome News-Tribune.
In the newspaper photo, my face is obscured by a baseball another kid is holding out but it’s obvious it is the back of my head. My hand is empty as Hank examines my ball, determining where to sign. I remember him being very standoffish and cool. In the photo, only white kids were lined up around Aaron as fathers in Chevy caps and mothers with thick glasses waited. He was not smiling.
I learned years later from his 1991 autobiography that he had been uneasy about race relations from the moment the Braves moved to Atlanta.
“We couldn’t be completely comfortable,” he wrote. “It was made perfectly clear to us that we weren’t in Milwaukee anymore. There was often a hate letter or two in the mail, and I was always concerned about Barbara [his first wife] and the kids being abused when they went to the ballpark.”
As it became evident in the early ’70s that Aaron could surpass Ruth, the hate mail increased exponentially, and came from all over the country.
“Dear Nigger,” one letter read. “Everybody loved Babe Ruth. You will be the most hated man in America if you break his career home run record.”
Another: “Dear Super Spook. First of all, I don’t care for the color of shit. You are pretty damn repugnant trying to break Babe Ruth’s record. You boogies will think that you invented baseball or something.”
He received many death threats during the record chase. The FBI evaluated the most dangerous ones, and two Atlanta Police detectives were hired to serve as his bodyguards.
The antagonism brought back Aaron’s childhood memories of when his mother would tell him to hide under his bed in fear of the Ku Klux Klan, or later when he and four other players who broke the color line in the South Atlantic League in 1953 were taunted and harassed.
When Aaron finally hit 715, his comment to the crowd that night was not one of elation or celebration, but a simple statement: “I just thank God it’s all over.”
As the innocence of my youth faded, it broke my heart to learn why Aaron would have seemed reluctant while signing my autograph in 1978. Even though he broke Ruth’s record less than a decade after the Civil Rights movement tumultuously brought integration and other much-needed changes to the South, my grandfather and I had been unequivocally for him with nary a discussion of race. Hank was our team’s star, and we were strongly on his side. I know I never thought about his skin color or wished that a white player were chasing the record instead — nor do I remember hearing anything contrary. This speaks both to my good fortune to be in a community and family of kind folks, but also to the uniting cultural and social-bonding powers of sports.
In the early ’90s, I was at a small pre-wedding party in Savannah, Georgia, when the father of the young woman hosting the gathering showed off a Super 8 movie he had filmed of Aaron’s record-breaking home run. The father — who was not a journalist or broadcaster — snuck onto the field with his handheld camera and ran into the pack of reporters gathered around home plate. He was not shooed away or arrested, surprising considering that Hank was allegedly under tight security. His film showed close-ups of Aaron. I can pick out the intrusive father when I see news footage of that day. He stood 10 feet from the celebration, acting like he had a right to be there.
He wasn’t the only trespasser. Two shaggy 17-year-olds dashed onto the field and ran beside Hank for a few strides as if they belonged there. Unlike Reggie Jackson, who once bashed the jaw of a fan who tried to get his cap, Hank continued his trot and did his best to ignore them.
The father with the home video was proud of his boldness in intruding into baseball history. The two teens who ran the bases with Aaron are now 57 years old, probably gloating about their obnoxious act as the 40th anniversary is celebrated.
I wouldn’t trade anything for my vantage point of the historic home run, sitting in my grandfather’s lap while Hammering Hank trotted around the bases in his casual style. Granddad and I were happy to be where we were, not scrapping to move closer, not shouting out epithets, but relishing the moment from afar, happy that a player on our Atlanta Braves had beaten out the greatest of the New York Yankees, regardless of race. I think that Hank, a quiet man whose lightning quick bat thrust him into a spotlight he didn’t want, would have preferred that everyone enjoy it that way.
Joe Samuel Starnes’s second novel, "Fall Line," was selected for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 2012 list “A Year in Reading: Best of the South.” His first novel, “Calling,” was published in 2005 and will be re-released this summer as an ebook from Mysterious Press. He and his brother Dan have established a fundraising campaign for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in memory of their grandfather, Joe Ellis Hopper.
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