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April 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm ET
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The South’s Hammer

I was just shy of three years old when Hank Aaron hit the historic homer that broke Babe Ruth’s record. But I remember it.

Well, sort of.

Aaron’s famous shot to the bullpen in left-center field of the old Fulton County Stadium will be celebrated at Turner Field tonight, 40 years after it happened. I may not be able to remember that the kids have a dentist appointment or a field trip today, or to recall that I was supposed to pick up shampoo or dog food, but excitement like Hank Aaron brought to our lives is something stark and memorable, and it lingers for decades — even for a preschooler.

But since preschool memories are somewhat foggy, and often told through filters of faded photographs and embellished stories, I thought I’d pursue some other people’s memories of that historic chase. My daddy would have been the obvious choice for my mission, but he died three and a half years ago. My memories of his memories are the ones that have carried my own Hank experience. He often talked about how great it was to have a Brave chasing Ruth’s record, and he reminded me time and again that I saw many of those homers that contributed to Aaron’s total, even if I was more interested in toddling between stadium seats, spilling popcorn and watching Chief Noc-A-Homa dance in front of his right-field teepee.

So I went to the media. I read repeated accounts of the hate mail and death threats Aaron received as his stats grew. I read about the frustration and pain of having to be isolated from his team for his own protection, and of the stress that this humble, gentle man was under as the pressure of the chase built. It had been 26 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier (Aaron joined the then-Boston Braves five years after Robinson entered the majors in 1947), but the possibility of having a black man break the Babe’s record gave the supremacists an excuse to scatter more hate. Like Robinson, he had endured segregation and ill-treatment early on, but the chase provided a new level of animosity and hatred from some elements. It was a blight of shame on what should have been an event of unrivaled joy.

Some positive stories emerged, as people observed the bigotry and fought back with sympathy for and support of the home run hero. It was a chance for stereotypical Southerners to overcome the hate and, instead, celebrate an accomplishment of a black man, who represented the only major league team the South could really claim.

There were other stories, like the two goofballs who jumped from the bleachers onto the field and ran alongside Aaron, leaping, celebrating, and apparently conducting an interview, for the last half of the home run trot. There was the controversy of MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn requiring the Braves to play Aaron in two of the three opening-series games in Cincinnati. The Braves had wanted to bench Aaron so that he could tie the record at home in Atlanta. The Hammer tied the Babe’s record in his first swing of the 1974 season, but he didn’t homer again until April 8, back in Fulton County.

Finally, of course, were lots of stories about Barry Bonds, in which people tried to gauge Aaron’s feelings about a man who broke his record under suspicious circumstances.

But no matter the story, all accounts seem to have one thing in common: an admiration for the dignity with which Aaron conducted himself, and a respect for the man both on and off the field.

But after all the searching, my mother’s memories seemed to find me leaning in, and polishing my own. She doesn’t remember the racism, or the statistics, or the controversies. She just remembers the glory.

My parents married in 1966, the same year the Braves made their move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. A yearly trek to Georgia was an early ritual for them, especially after Daddy took a position with Gold Kist, whose headquarters was there. The tradition carried on through their young couple years, then through all the years of raising their family. We weren’t beach people, and we weren’t much for touristy-type trips.

Our summer vacations were always to Fulton County: four hours away and the home of the Braves. Some years we would make the trip two or three times. Others, we would set up camp at the Howard Johnson a block from the stadium, and catch several days worth of baseball, perhaps throwing in a Six Flags visit while we were there. It was something my brother — until he died in 1981 — and I looked forward to every year. Sometimes we took friends or family with us. Sometimes it was just us.

We weren’t at the 715 game, but we saw him hit homers during the 1973 season before the record-breaker, and in the 1974 season, after that historic day. That far back, the memories are a little foggy: vague impressions of the chubby, lower-case cursive “a,” on the players’ jerseys, the Indian chief’s dance around the pitcher’s mound before the game, and my mom keeping the scorecard that came inside the program, largely because it relieved her boredom. “I wasn’t really the baseball fan in our family,” she says. “That was your daddy, and, later, y’all kids. But I enjoyed the games because we were together.”

Perhaps it was because she cared less about statistics and standings that my mother’s recollections seem more astute, more global, than some of the others. First she stepped back to a few years before the chase became news.

On a Deep South-hot-August day game in 1971. My mother was eight months pregnant with me. In their last trip as a couple without children, she and my daddy took her parents to sit in the Georgia sun and watch the Braves. “I was feeling dizzy,” she remembers. “And the entire upper deck was empty – and in the shade.” She and her mother ventured from their field-level seats – “We always sat in the good seats, back then. There was never a crowd, so they were always available.”

They walked up the myriads of steps to find comfort from the blazing light and sat down in the middle of an entire section of vacant, shaded seats. But they didn’t stay long. An usher came and ran them out, telling them they had to stay in their own seats. Didn’t matter that the section was empty. Didn’t matter that the wilting woman was eight months pregnant. Didn’t matter that the seats to which they had escaped were much less expensive than the field-level tickets they had purchased.

Those empty seats left an indelible impression on my mother, who understandably wasn’t much of a Braves fan after that for several years. She’s come back around, now a widow who watches the games on television unless she is watching her grandsons play instead. But even then, she continued to go to Atlanta anyway, out of love for my daddy and her daddy, both of whom loved the game and the team, whether they were winning or losing, whether the stadium was full or empty, whether they had forced my poor, almost-due mom to sit in the sun or not.

She remembers clearly that, as I grew from infant to toddler, and Hank’s home run totals began to chase the Babe’s, those expensive field-level seats became more difficult to find. In fact, seats anywhere — sun or shade – became scarce. Being the person who called the toll-free number and ordered the tickets by mail, my mother recognized something was growing and changing in Braves Country. “When Hank Aaron was chasing that record, it seemed like everyone in the world was a baseball fan,” she says. “He made the Braves important.”

It seems to me that her sentiment is key to remembering this now-40-year-old historic moment. There will be fanfare tonight, and, though the Braves haven’t officially announced what will transpire, one would imagine the Hammer, now 80 and still working in the team’s front office, will be there to celebrate and be celebrated. I’m sure Turner Field will be packed, as well – not an empty seat, to be found. And while we have a lot to ponder in this moment, it may well be that we can thank Hank for making the Braves matter – if not to the world, at least to the South.

At least to us.

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One Response to “The South’s Hammer”
  1. Rocket says:

    You better believe Hank matters to the world. Very nicely told, Terri.

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