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It is a moment etched in baseball history. On April 8, 1974, the Los Angeles Dodgers were facing the Atlanta Braves, with Braves slugger Hank Aaron on the brink of a milestone. When he stepped to the plate in the fourth inning, against lefty hurler Al Downing, Aaron had 714 career home runs—tying him with Babe Ruth.

After taking a pitch, Aaron clocked the next one, sending the ball soaring over the left-center field fence, eclipsing Ruth’s record. As he circled the bases, the crowd went wild, and several fans ran onto the field, trying to congratulate the new home run king. Reaching home plate, Aaron was mobbed by his teammates, and embraced by his parents, as fireworks went off in the sky.

Vin Scully, who broadcasted the game, captured the occasion’s significance:

What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.

Amidst all the jubilation, however, there was a somber note. Unknown to most people, Aaron’s road to that moment had been filled with unimaginable stress. Over and above the pressure of trying to catch Ruth’s historic record, Aaron knew that many Americans didn’t want him to break it.

In the months leading up to his achievement, Aaron had received many letters of support, but also ones filled with hostility, hate, and even threats. The authorities were so concerned for Aaron’s safety that they assigned body guards to protect him, even at the seeming sanctuary of the ballpark. When he spoke to the world after setting the new record—“I just thank God it’s all over”—it was as much out of relief as appreciation.

Aaron’s path to success had been hard-fought. Growing up in Alabama, he felt the sting of prejudice many times, but never allowed it to derail his baseball dreams. As a rising star in the early 1950’s, he knew how racist American sports could be—yet also recognized the promise they held for minorities. Inspired by Jackie Robinson’s courage, he too believed that he could use his athletic gifts to advance civil rights.

He didn’t have to wait long. Almost as soon as he entered the Major Leagues in 1954, Aaron noticed segregated training camps and the exclusion of black managers. He even experienced intolerance from his own teammates. Unbowed, he began publicly addressing the insidious nature of racism, describing the harrowing night he and a black friend were almost driven off the road.

Social commentary like that wasn’t welcome at the time—especially from a minority athlete—but Aaron continued to speak out, and performed so well on the field that he shamed his critics. As one writer memorably put it, “Aaron led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.”

A breakthrough occurred in 1957 when Aaron hit a pennant-clinching home run for the Braves (then in Milwaukee). He led his team to a World Series championship and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. After winning the pennant for them, Aaron’s teammates—including those once reluctant to embrace him—carried him off the field in triumph.

American society was changing too. Time magazine, which once disparagingly called Aaron, “The Talented Shuffler,” now wrote about his feats in biblical terms: “For Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth.”

Now eighty, Aaron’s social conscience was on display during the recent fortieth anniversary of his dramatic home run. Reflecting on everything he went through in 1974, Aaron expressed thanks for the nation’s genuine advancements in race relations, but also cautioned: “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.”

The comment immediately sparked controversy, particularly because the original story quoting Aaron suggested he was targeting Republicans—a view he strongly repudiated. But Aaron’s words weren’t aimed at a political party, only the disordered passions of the human heart. Attempts to clarify his point met with only partial success, as the Atlanta Braves front office received a flurry of hateful letters denouncing Aaron. And for a moment, it appeared we were back in 1974 all over again: NBA owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making a stream of highly offensive racial comments—underscoring the relevance of Aaron’s message.

Racism is hardly the only sin confronting the United States, but it is certainly a grave one, one that has long-haunted America. Henry “Hank” Aaron, however, has helped America confront its illness through his baseball career and activism. As George Bush affirmed, while honoring Aaron with the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

Hank Aaron’s commitment to excellence in sports and in life has inspired generations of Americans. Driven by a desire to be the best, Hank Aaron overcame barriers of racism to achieve a remarkable record of success in professional baseball. His contributions to baseball, both on and off the field, and to our country, teach us the power of a determined heart, and remind us that every person deserves the freedom to reach his or her potential. The United States honors one of America’s baseball’s greats, who embodies the true spirit of our nation.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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