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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hank Aaron and the Unreliability of Memory

Today, a blustery winter's day, reminds me of the night I listened to Hank Aaron hitting his 715th home run.

Or did I?

A couple of times while I was going to college, I went on camping trips, where my spouse and I tent camped - once with friends and once on our own.  On the second trip, which occurred during spring break in 1974, we found ourselves in a beautiful state park in Pennsylvania - right after a snowstorm.

That's what youth is all about, after all - making mistakes.

But we also knew that Hank Aaron was playing that night, and was due to hit a record breaking home run. So we brought our radio into the tent.

Why should anyone care about Aaron breaking a home run record?  The answer is simple and interwoven with the United States and the history of race relations.

Simply put, the home run record had stood for years, and was then owned by one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Babe Ruth.  At the time Ruth played, however, people of color were not allowed to compete in the major leagues.  So, we will never know how Ruth would have played if he had to face great African American players during his dual careers as a pitcher and an outfielder. That discussion is outside the scope of this blog post, but it was enough to say that Ruth was white.

"Major League" (i.e., white) baseball was integrated between 1947 and 1959.  Prior to 1947, and even for a while after, talented baseball players of color were forced to compete in their own professional league, the Negro Leagues.

In fact, Hank Aaron played briefly for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League before he was acquired by the Major Leagues Milwaukee Braves.  Aaron, at the time of his baseball retirement, was the last active Negro League player.

But Aaron break Ruth's home run record?  That didn't sit well with all baseball fans.  Aaron received hate mail and death threats and, in fact, had a bodyguard in the stands the beginning of the 1974 season, "just in case".  I've seen one of these letters, posted on Twitter, complete with a childlike diagram of how the letter writer planned to shoot Aaron.

But here I was with my spouse, shivering in an ice cold tent in Pennsylvania.  And my question is:

That night, the Braves were playing at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  How could I be listening to the game happening hundreds of miles away?

Maybe it was a rebroadcast, but both my spouse and I remember hearing the play by play as Aaron hit the record breaking 715th home run against former Yankee pitcher (the same team Ruth was playing for when he set the home run record) Al Downing.  Downing, in turn, was the first African-American starting pitcher for the Yankees.  In 1961.

So, returning to Aaron, is this a hallucination or did spouse and I really hear it that night?  Maybe we can never be sure.


Today, people of all races mourn Aaron's death yesterday at the age of 86. He was a legend.  It appears 2021 will be just as unkind to the great players of baseball as 2020 was.

One last thing.  Do you know what I also remember about April of 1974 and that camping trip?

The beauty of that park.  We were there all by ourselves.  I even have pictures of the park I took somewhere in the house.

History can be beautiful.

8 comments:

  1. ...you are either a hardy soul or crazy to be camping in Pennsylvania in the snow. Let's just say the you were hardy!

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  2. Snow in April in Pennsylvania? Yep. Been known to happen. Good thing you were young at the time.

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  3. Camping in the snow? No thanks.

    I didn’t hear the game, but I remember the fuss when he broke the record,

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  4. Considering that it was an historic game, as they were expecting the record to be broken, perhaps it was broadcast farther than it normally would have been? If you're on Twitter, I know of a baseball aficionado who might know the answer, but he's pretty famous, so he might not respond.

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  5. I remember watching Hammer Hank hit his 715 home run.
    Coffee is on and stay safe

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  6. I remember that game clearly. I was a Braves fan in those days. I remember Milo Hamilton, who was later an Astros announcer, calling the home run.

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  7. You would have fit right in with our Boy Scout group and their winter survival campouts in February in Michigan. I do rememmber that night in 1974, but not sure I actually listened to the game.

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  8. I remember that game well, too. I had recently moved to Binghamton from Atlanta, where I saw Hank Aaron play many times at the Braves games.

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