April 8, 1974 Atlanta Stadium, Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves –
“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South.” – Vin Scully, iconic Dodger television broadcaster.
The occasion, of course, was legendary baseball star Hank Aaron hitting his 715th career home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.
Turns out that the home run was Aaron’s “gift to America that keeps on giving”: In a New York Times interview, the pitcher who surrendered that historic sports-world event, Al Downing, has given us one of the most graceful assessments of its significance for him and for all Americans.
The Times article setup: “On Friday, Downing … spoke following the news of Aaron’s death, reflecting on their connection, Aaron’s legacy and the prejudice Aaron endured on his way to making history.”
Downing is incisive and eloquent. Excerpts:
“He [Sully] was absolutely right in what he was saying. It was unusual because you weren’t too far past the time when the races couldn’t mix on the athletic field … So all of a sudden, you looked in ’74 and you have this Black guy here in Atlanta, and you have all these white people in the stands standing up and clapping for him. It was totally unheard-of.
“It shows you how great an impact not only sports, but also the sportsmen, the person carrying the message, can have on society and trying to bridge that gap that exists between cultures. He definitely personified that. He did it with such dignity, such grace …”
Bridge that gap – Hank Aaron’s legacy, our duty.