In 1974, Hank Aaron broke the most hallowed record in baseball. I can still hear the echo.

Aaron’s greatness as a player is assured, along with his greatness as a symbol of triumph in the face of deep racial animus

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Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

A line drive is always a tricky thing. As an 11-year-old Little League first baseman, that was a truth I knew from experience. Sometimes they shot off the bat with such ferocity that it tested my reflexes to get my glove on them as I fought against the instinct to simply get out of the way. Occasionally, they were hit so solidly that they had no spin, and would come at me fluttering, like a Phil Niekro knuckleball. And other times, they would spin like a curveball, cracking off the bat at chest level and dipping to my feet by the time they reached my glove.

But none of my Little League experience could even begin to prepare me for the moment in the spring of 1970 when a line drive hit off the bat of Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron came screaming at me from 350 feet away.

To celebrate the end of the school year, my class had gone on a field trip to Atlanta Stadium to watch the Braves play a day game. Our tickets put us in the front row of the left-field bleachers. Aaron stepped up to bat for the third time in the sixth or seventh inning. At that point, he’d passed the career 500-home-run mark, but any talk of Aaron reaching Babe Ruth’s seemingly unattainable 714 was still in the whispering stage. Instead, the focus was on Aaron knocking on the door to become only the ninth member of the career 3,000-hit club.

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run
Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record on April 8, 1974.

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

I was seated next to Mr. Simmons, the only Black teacher in my recently integrated elementary school, and we were both aware that we were in prime home run territory. During each of Aaron’s previous at-bats, we had leaned forward in anticipation, and this third time was no exception. Still, we were in momentary disbelief when we heard a loud crack of the bat and saw the ball launch from home plate.

Aaron seldom hit the kind of towering home runs associated with Ruth and Willie Mays and the other more flamboyant sluggers. His homers were usually line drives. At first the ball seemed headed to left-center field. Then, like a golf shot with spin, it began to curve. At a certain point, I realized that it was headed straight for me, and as it neared, I began to feel the excitement of anticipation coupled with the chill of fear: That ball was traveling fast, and I’d unfortunately decided beforehand that it was no longer cool to bring my glove to a Braves game.

As the ball neared us, Mr. Simmons and I each cupped our hands and reached out over the rail. My calculations were slightly off, and instead of me, it went straight to him. The ball hit his hands with a force that would cause them to stay swollen and bruised for a week. For a moment, he’d seemingly caught it. Then it bounced off his hands and fell harmlessly to the ground 20 feet below us.

The shouts of joy around us suddenly turned into a collective groan.

That shared moment strengthened the bond between Mr. Simmons and me. And I came to understand that Henry Aaron and his quest meant something to Mr. Simmons that I could never experience because I wasn’t Black. At that time, Aaron wasn’t even my favorite player. He didn’t make spectacular leaping catches like Mickey Mantle, and didn’t lose his cap as he galloped after fly balls, like Mays. Aaron moved about the field with an apparently casual ease that I only later recognized as graceful elegance.

But for Mr. Simmons and other Black Americans of his era, Henry Aaron was a powerful symbolic figure: a Black man challenging the records of White baseball players at a time when Black Americans were challenging White society for equality.

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Of course, as he chased Babe Ruth, Aaron also became a powerful symbolic figure to White racists who considered it an abomination that a Black player would dare break such a hallowed record.

In the days before social media, it took effort to express racist vitriol to a celebrity. Someone first had to write it down on a piece of paper, fold that paper into an envelope, find the correct address and jot it down on the envelope, put a stamp on it, and then carry it to the post office. Aaron received bags upon bags of hate mail—the U.S. Postal Service said he received 930,000 letters during the chase, and many of them contained death threats and pure racial hate. He publicly carried the burden with considerable grace, but it was a burden unmatched in the history of sports.

It was 50 years ago this month—April 8, 1974—that Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run off pitcher Al Downing in Atlanta, breaking Ruth’s 39-year record. When he finally reached that summit, it seemed less a cause for celebration for Aaron than reason for a long sigh of relief: The chase was finally over.

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run
Billye Aaron, Hank’s wife

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run

Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center/Boyd Lewis

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run
Estella Aaron, Hank’s mother

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Aaron later told the New York Times. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

Aaron retired in 1976 as the all-time home run king, with 755. He still holds the major league records for most career RBIs, extra base hits, and total bases. He is one of only five players to have at least 17 seasons with 150 or more hits. He’s third in all-time hits, behind only two players—Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. He is now second on the all-time home runs list, behind a player with a steroid-sized asterisk next to his name. His greatness as a player is assured, along with his greatness as a symbol of triumph in the face of deep racial animus.

Hank Aaron 50th anniversary of 715th home run

Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center/Boyd Lewis

Mr. Simmons and I were unwitting symbols as well: a Black teacher and the White student he mentored, at a time when the racial tensions swirling around us were at an apex. We shared many moments, but it was a scorching line drive that bound us in ways I didn’t fully understand at the time.

Henry Aaron was Mr. Simmons’s hero. He’s my hero, too.

An exhibition on the life of Henry Aaron opens April 9 at Atlanta History Center and will run through September 2025. The Atlanta Braves will mark the 50th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run on April 8 at Truist Park.

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