In the summer of 1974, 45 years ago this season, a momentous event was taking place in major league baseball. Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs, and it created a turbulent time both inside and outside of baseball.
Hank was going to break the record; it was just a question of time. From the headlines and stories in the papers of the day, it was clear that most Americans were aghast that this black man from Atlanta would overtake the record of the most famous, most popular baseball player ever: Babe Ruth.
Recently, it was written that “the racism and abuse Hall of Famer Hank Aaron endured while chasing the home run record of Babe Ruth was so traumatic he almost regretted the accomplishment many consider one of the greatest feats in sports history.”
“I didn’t have too much fun,” the former Atlanta Braves slugger said. “It was the saddest two and one-half years I ever had in baseball. Knowing what I know now, I don’t know that I would do it again.”
The newspapers wrote of the threats on Aaron’s life by people who did not want to see him break Ruth’s record. He had to stay in hiding during a good part of the run. It’s hard to imagine that now, but it was the reality of the day.
I was a kid then—a kid who loved baseball, a theme I’ve written about here before. My team was the Astros, the closest franchise to Amarillo—though its stadium, the venerable Astrodome, was 600 miles away, a full day’s drive that we never made.
But watching this history unfold was a great and thrilling time. Anyone who was a decent human being and a true baseball fan celebrated Aaron’s ability to relentlessly hit baseballs out of the park. Every morning, I would open the paper to see if Hank had hit another one. I would cheer to myself and smile broadly when I checked the box score and saw that he had recorded yet another home run.
I don’t remember Amarillo being much of a racist town. We had black kids in school, and we were friends with them just like anyone else. And I never heard a bad thing said about any black person. Ever. In my Jewish family, we were raised to respect everyone since we, ourselves, were such a minority in our town.
I loved Hank because he was by all accounts a good guy and because he was certainly a great ballplayer and to me that was all that mattered. Though I was just a kid, I understood that how Aaron was being treated was a disgrace. So I sat down and wrote him a letter telling him how great I thought he was and how excited I was for him to break the record. I encouraged him to stay strong and not let the negativity get him down. I wrote a full page on lined paper and sent it to: Hank Aaron, The Atlanta Braves, Atlanta, Georgia.
Apparently it got there, since three weeks later, I received a response. An envelope arrived with the signature Indian brave with the “Braves” logo beneath it and their address. My hands trembled with excitement as I ripped open the envelope. Inside was a one-page typed letter from Hank to “Sloane” thanking me for writing and for supporting him in his quest to reach the home run record.
Of course, I thought that Hank had sat down at a typewriter and banged out that letter only to me. It didn’t occur to me until much later in life that thousands of supportive fans must have been writing to him as well. But even thinking about that much later, I hoped that he actually had signed this particular letter, the one to me.
I’ve always been glad that I took the time to send that letter. I guess I joined tens of thousands of others doing the same thing, though with his sad comments about the backlash while chasing Ruth, it is clear that we couldn’t begin to offset the awfulness that Hank endured. But perhaps we gave him just enough courage to go out there and achieve the record, in spite of the difficulty surrounding his efforts.
Looking back now, I realize that sending that letter was probably more important to me than it was to Hank, for, as Albert Einstein wrote, “If I were to do nothing, I’d be guilty of complicity.” Though my concern was strictly baseball, I learned how good it felt to do the right thing.