April 8th of 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of a baseball milestone. On that day in 1974, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting his 715th home run. I was 12 at the time.
I remember the excitement and anticipation in the early days of April that year. I was not an avid baseball fan, but I did get caught up in the story. It was big news at the time, and much fanfare surrounded the event.
Back then, I had family living in Atlanta. My aunt Mimi and uncle Harry had a gift shop in Underground Atlanta, and after Aaron broke the record, my aunt sent me a commemorative poster that they were selling at their shop. As I recall, the poster was a photograph, taken from behind home plate, snapped just after Aaron’s bat connected with the ball. The ball was lost in the crowd and the lights, so on the poster, a white circle had been placed around it for clarity. I loved that poster.
I loved that something monumental had happened, and people were celebrating Hank Aaron for making it happen. I can’t say that I was perceptive enough to recognize the significance this event had in terms of racial equality and fairness, but I understood that a black player breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, smack in the middle of the 1970s, was meaningful. It made me happy. Not everyone felt happy, however. Some people, as it turns out, were enraged.
In light of the anniversary, Aaron was recently interviewed by sports writer Bob Nightengale of USA Today, and talked frankly about racism in America. He recounted that, in the days leading up to his record-shattering hit, he and the Atlanta Braves were besieged with hate mail. Horrible letters spewing racist sentiment. Some of those letters included death threats. The gist of them was this: how dare an obviously inferior black man attempt to better a sports record held by an obviously superior white man?
Those letters are still carefully tucked away in Aaron’s attic. He keeps them, he says, “to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
It makes me sad to read this, but I can’t argue the point. Racism, sadly, is alive and well in America in 2014. Despite the fact that this nation has advanced to a point where we have a black president well into his second term in office, Aaron believes that race-driven bigotry is what has kept Republican leadership constantly at odds with President Obama. And I have to agree. In fact, I’ve had this very same thought on numerous occasions since Obama took office in 2009.
And just as Hank Aaron incurred the wrath of racists everywhere in 1974, by daring to be an elite athlete and break a long-standing record, he’s managed to do it again simply by stating the truth as he sees it. Immediately after Nightengale’s story ran, Aaron and the management offices of the Atlanta Braves, where Aaron serves as the organization’s senior vice-president, were once again the targets of racist mail. The only difference this time was that they arrived electronically.
I’m not sure what it was about Aaron’s comments that created this latest firestorm. Who knows what fires up a bigot? But perhaps it was this statement, which left me a little stunned in its simplicity and its truth: “We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Yes. Yes, they do.
In the mildest of this most recent round of hate mail, Aaron is referred to as “a classless racist” in one, and “a racist scumbag” in another. One fan threatens to stop attending Braves games unless and until Aaron is fired, and another vows to burn his copy of Aaron’s autobiography, “If I Had a Hammer.”
Others were much worse. A shameful number of them toss out the ‘N’ word. No surprise there. That word, along with most other bigoted and racist pejoratives, is common in hate mail. Because apparently, the bigger the bigot, the smaller the vocabulary.
If you can force yourself to look at this story without becoming furious, and trust me, I’ve had to struggle to do so, you will see, and perhaps even find humor in the fact that all of these haters have proved Aaron’s point in spectacular fashion. Who better to offer perspective on racism than a man who has experienced it for all of his 80 years, and who better to find his perspective insulting than a bunch of white folks who know nothing of it?
Of course racism still exists in this country. It’s like a cancer.
For a country as great as the United States, one which has always seemed to pride itself on being a melting pot of people and cultures and ideas, bigotry, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest threats to our safety and our way of life. Especially when we choose to hide our heads in the sand and deny that it exists.
I see evidence of racism every day, probably because my home state is a hotbed for it, along with bigotry in many other forms. It shames me to say this, but Texas is home to 57 recognized hate groups, and most of them are populated by whites. True, there are a handful labeled as black separatist groups, but the majority of them are classified as Ku Klux Klan, white nationalist, neo-Nazi, or racist skinhead. Texas ranks third nationally for hate groups, just behind California and Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center website.
Sadly, I have no answers. Racism, like all other types of bigotry, is borne of ignorance, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to change the mind of someone who has been taught all his life to hate. All I can do is to continue to see the good in others, and to call out the bad. If racism is still alive and well, then so, too, must the fight to overcome it be. Bigotry cannot be tolerated or ignored. And I hope that when you see it, rather than turning away, you’ll drag it out in the light and expose it for what it is.
Because if we all do that, kindness will win out one day. We are capable of evolving more fully. I have to believe that. I hope Hank Aaron believes it too.
Baked goods contest update: Despite my best efforts to contact the March contest winner, I have never received a response. My IT department selected another random name this morning, and I’ve sent email to that lucky soul. Next week, I should be able to announce said winner, and there will be an April winner the following week. Stay tuned!