It’s every boys dream as a child to be “that man”. That man who changes everything. This is especially true when it comes to sports. Whether it’s a buzzer beater in the NBA championship game or the make that winning pass/catch in the Super Bowl as the clock winds down to zero. There isn’t a ball park you will walk by were you wouldn’t hear a young boy say “Jonny steps back up to the plate. Bottom of the 9th here folks and the bases are loaded. This is it. This is for the entire season. 2 outs, 3 balls and 2 strikes. Game seven of the World Series and its all comes down to this. Jonny stares the pitcher down as he looks at flashing bulbs go off in the roaring stadium. He stands there taking in the glamour of this great game. Jonny keeps the bat on his shoulder and.. I DONT BELIEVE IT!!! Jonny is pointing. He’s pointing to where he says the ball is going to go. Jonny steps into position. The pitcher throws a mean curve and… CRACK!!! WE WILL SEE YOU LATER!!! THE CROWD GOES WILD!!!! Jonny just hit a Grand Slam home run. WE WIN!!! We win the World Series!!!!”
There have been many greats in the game of baseball. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson. All of which captured our hearts, the spirit and the love of Americas Pastime. Baseball has always been one of those sports that transcended cultures. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white. It was accessible to watch and it was the first time when we saw giants emerge out of sports to become heroes. Just because it transcended cultures didn’t mean that it wasnt integrated. You have the MLB which was the white league and you had the NLB which was the negro leauge. Both leagues had outstanding talent and players but it wasnt until 1951 that those leagues began to merge with the inclusion of number 42, Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants. This shook the world. It wasnt the first time a black player played in professional sports in a segregated league but it was the first time on the scale as large as the MLB. People hated it. They booed it but as the game went on people began to cheer. It brought the game closer than it had ever been before.
April 13, 1954. A young man from Mobile, Alabama stepped to the plate for the first time in Milwaukee. It had been two years since baseball had started it desegregation. Little did this young man know he was about to be in pursuit of history and help change the course of play for baseball. Hank Aaron didn’t have the best game as his first. Actually it was a horrible outing as he went 0-5. That start however, bad as it was, ended up being something special as Hank went on to be 3rd in hits with a total of 3771. Though as many hits has he had it was the ones that every fan loves to see and cheer for that he became known for. The Home Run. Hank Aaron was a player. He holds high marks in almost all categories of the game of baseball. He was a Slugger, he was on base, he hit the ball and when he hit the ball it went out of the park. People cheered for him as they saw ball after ball wail past the fence. Year after year. He is the only player in history to hit 30 or more home runs in 15 seasons and 40 home runs or more for 7 consecutive seasons. The more he hit the more people cheered then he started to chase numbers. It seems that everything is okay if you play well until you chase legends. First came surpassing Yankee’s legend Mickie Mantle on July 31, 1969 with his 537th home run. He was now in third all time behind Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. After surpassing Mays in the strike shortened season of 1972 people realized that with the consistent numbers he was putting up he could surpass the King of Baseball.
Like a wild-fire rushing through the forest, Hank Aaron rapidly approached the magic number held for so long by Ruth, 714. It took to the last game of the season for Aaron to pull within a run of Ruth. This was not an easy task. The turmoil of the 50’s and 60’s have passed but in the belly of America still stood this hatred. This was 1973 heading into 1974. We stood at a breaking point in society where we had put a man on the moon, the Vietnam War was over and the Civil Rights movement had brought laws of equality to this great nation. Sadly, we witnessed something else entirely. There was a mentality that no black man should ever eclipse “The Babe”. Aaron started to fear for his life. He was receiving death threats daily just not for himself but for his family as well. At the start of the 74′ season Hank needed just one run to tie Ruth. Aaron, still with the Braves but having moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in the 60’s, was in the heart of the South and still being riddled with hate mail and bigotry. Even through the bigotry, Hank Aaron received an out pouring of support from fans. When Atlanta returned home from its 3 game opening away games in Cincinnati. The pressure was on. Not only was Aaron one home run away from surpassing the great Babe Ruth but he was under surmounting pressure from racist and hate mongers to quit. He was still receiving death threats up to the point of the start of the game. On April 8, 1974, in the bottom of the fourth, Hank Aaron stepped up to the plate. Stronger than any man before him he cracked the pitch over the wall nearly braking the outfielder in two as he reached for the ball. As he was rounding the bases the most amazing thing happened, two white college students ran onto the field as Aaron was rounding second base. At first he was startled because of the death threats but then the two men patted him on his back and rounded the bases with him, congratulating him on the way to home plate. At this moment all fears, all hate, all differences disappeared and the baseball world and America became one. This moment in time, forever captured on film, showed what we have become. What we can become and aspire to be. This was when we stopped seeing men as black and white and started seeing men as men. 715 is a number that will remain in our hearts forever. This is the number that changed the way we see sports and the ascension of heroes.
February 5, 1934, Hank Aaron came into this world just outside of Mobile, Alabama. He is an icon today but became an icon 50 years ago. He help transcend how we view achievements and greatness of all men.