By the time Grandma Hazel and Great Uncle Doug took me to my first baseball game at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium in July 1975, Hank Aaron no longer played there. But the memory of what he had done on that field will live in my mind forever.
It was a little more than a year earlier, on the Monday night of April 8, 1974, that my parents relinquished the TV so a young baseball fan could watch history being made.
As the game began, Aaron was tied with Babe Ruth at 714 for the most home runs in MLB history. At 9:07 p.m., Aaron drove a pitch from the Dodgers' Al Downing into the left-field bullpen, where Braves reliever Tom House caught the ball and dashed to home plate to present it to the new home run champion.
To this day, I have the April 1974 issue of Baseball Digest with the cover headline “The Chase Resumes” to the left of a portrait of Aaron. I still remember the jubilation of changing it in my childish crayon scrawl to read “... Is Over!”
As a Black man (in the Deep South, no less), Aaron faced a daily torrent of virulent racism including death threats as he approached what was considered the most hallowed record in all of sports. When I look back upon the moment – I do so usually unbidden and surprisingly often – I marvel at the innocence of a 12-year-old boy in northwest Ohio who was utterly oblivious to this fact.
I was never rooting for a Black man; I was rooting for Hammerin' Hank (and history). On the day of his death, and with all that has transpired in the nearly 47 years between, I can only ache for that innocence.
Keith Elchert is The Journal Gazette's editorial page copy editor. He was already a Cincinnati Reds fan by 1974.