There’s been a few times where I have tied something I wrote in this space to the number of the post. Yes, I do keep track of how many posts I’ve put into this space. And this is the 715th post I’ve written, in the year and-a-half I’ve been at this. There’s only one thing that can be discussed upon reaching 715, and that’s Henry Aaron and the home run record he broke back in 1974.
When Babe Ruth retired from baseball in 1935, he had set a record that most people thought would never be broken. 714 home runs was a mind-boggling number, and the next closest person didn’t even have half as many. But as the old saying goes, “records were made to be broken.” And Henry Aaron eventually proved that to be true.
Aaron ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs. He never hit so many as 50 in a single season, but he kept at it, year after year, until he had made it to the doorstep of history. And, unfortunately, the racist hate mails came. This was a black man who was going to eclipse a white man’s record. And some–far too many–couldn’t handle that.
The two kids who ran onto the field after Aaron hit his historic homer were not a part of that, though. They were two 17-year-olds from Waycross, Georgia, who were literally the first to congratulate Aaron for what he had done. They shared the same racial identity as those who had sent Aaron all of those threatening letters, but not their racial animus. They merely wanted to pat him on the back for a job well done, the way a lot of people wanted to, I suppose.
One of the two young men in the picture is now an optometrist in Georgia, and the other one apparently passed away after a battle with cancer in 2011. But they shared a moment together, which showed that not everyone resented Aaron for what he had done on a baseball field. The haters were hiding in the shadows as Aaron circled the bases on that day in Atlanta, while what Lincoln might have called “the better angels of our nature” ran onto the field to congratulate him, instead.
I salute those better angels, and Henry Aaron for continuing on with his home run trot as they did what they did. Aaron had every reason to see these two white kids as a threat, after what he had gone through in the offseason. But they didn’t faze him one bit, and that speaks volumes about what kind of person he was.
As inexplicable as the appearance of these two young kids on the field was, it’s a good story, too. One that I’m happy to retell here, in my little corner of the digital world in the 21st century. May we all go through life with the same spirit of exuberance of Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, and the same graciousness and unflappability of Henry Aaron. And most importantly, may we not allow race to get in the way of anything good. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it’s worth remembering examples of when it does.