Henry "Hank" Aaron died on Jan. 22, and with this loss came reflections on a sports legend. But Aaron's importance goes far beyond his powerful swing. His story is one of an athlete's courage and of three presidents taking a stand for unity and racial healing.
In April 1974, when Aaron was on the cusp of breaking Babe Ruth's home run record, America was roiled by division and social unrest. President Richard Nixon, who had won a landslide victory in 1972, was facing impeachment. The Paris Peace Accords had been signed, but the Vietnam War still divided America. And the economy was reeling from the recent Arab oil embargo and stock market crash. In addition, the prospect of a black athlete surpassing Ruth sowed racial discord and brought out ugly, racist comments and even death threats directed at Aaron. America seemed close to a breaking point.
Aaron had ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs, leading to an entire offseason of anticipation that Aaron would tie and then break Ruth's record of 714 the following year. Unfortunately, racial ugliness tormented Aaron in that period between the seasons. He received boxes' worth of hate mail. The Atlanta Braves had to hire a police escort to shadow Aaron, and he checked into hotels under a different name as a precaution. When the 1974 season started, Aaron was ready for the quest to be over.
The Braves started the new season on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. The team wanted to sit Aaron for the opening series so that he could break the record at home, but baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn told the Braves that Aaron had to play in Cincinnati and would face "serious penalties" if he did not. For opening day, April 4, Kuhn and Vice President Gerald Ford were in attendance. Ford threw out the first pitch, and witnessed Aaron hitting home run No. 714 to tie the record. After Aaron hit the home run, Ford congratulated him in an on-field ceremony. The Reds fans gave Aaron a standing ovation.
Aaron hit no more home runs that series in Cincinnati, and he came back to Atlanta tied with Ruth. Kuhn chose not to come to Atlanta, angering Aaron. But Georgia's governor did show up. Jimmy Carter was in the stands when Aaron hit a fastball from Dodger pitcher Al Downing to notch the record-breaking 715th home run. Carter joined in the 11-minute on-field celebration. The Southern politician with a grin that would soon be known around the world presented Aaron with a special Georgia license plate with the numbers 7-1-5 on it.
Carter wouldn't be president for a few years. The sitting president, Nixon, also showed his support for Aaron. The two had met years earlier at the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington. Nixon schmoozed with the players, impressing Aaron with his baseball knowledge. According to Aaron's assessment at the time, "Nixon knows more about baseball than some of the people in the game."
So, it wasn't a surprise when President Nixon called Aaron to offer his congratulations. Aaron initially couldn't take the call. He was playing the outfield. But when Nixon did get Aaron on the line, he invited the star and his wife to dinner at the White House. Aaron asked when he should come, and Nixon said, "As soon as possible." Nixon resigned that August, before he could host the new home run champ. "Hell, I didn't get there quick enough," Aaron joked years later to David Letterman. Still, Nixon took a stand at the time, issuing an important statement of America's highest ideals. He praised Aaron for representing "power, poise, courage, consistency ... America at its very best." African American columnist Carl Rowan, no fan of Nixon, later wrote that "President Nixon cooled the mobs" with that statement.
The support for Aaron did not end there. Ford, who would be president within four months, sent Aaron a personal letter after he broke the record. The vice president congratulated Aaron, saying that "seeing you hit your 714th home run to tie Babe Ruth's record was really a special treat for me and made my participation in the opening game of the 1974 baseball season all the more complete." Later, as president, Ford would join Aaron in the Commissioner's Box at the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. This was one week before Aaron, then a Milwaukee Brewer, would hit his final home run, his 755th, setting a record that would last until Barry Bonds broke it in August 2007. (Given widespread suspicion of Bonds's steroid use, many baseball fans still consider Aaron to be the home run king.)
Ford lost the presidency to Carter in 1976. In August 1978, Carter hosted Aaron in the Oval Office. This was one of many times Aaron would come to the White House, including visits under Bill Clinton, who awarded Aaron the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, and George W. Bush, who gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, in 2002.
Those awards, however, were in the future, when Aaron was widely accepted as an American hero. In the spring of 1974, at a time of ugly racial division, three presidents — one sitting and two soon-to-be — stepped out politically, stood for an amazing man, and advanced racial reconciliation at a difficult time in our history. These three very different presidents, from both parties, helped calm the waters and recognize Aaron as the hero we now celebrate. The episodes show how presidents can serve as unifying forces in American life and can help pave the way for us to fulfill our shared aspirations for the nation: united in freedom, tolerance, and the quest to excel in whatever field we choose.