On the opening day of the 1974 baseball season, the April anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Aaron hit his 714th home run. Babe Ruth had to move over.
The game was in Cincinnati, the oldest baseball town, where opening day always is a festival. Before the historic event, club executive Dick Wagner asked Aaron if there was anything the Reds could do for him. Nobody ever expects a reply to this question.
Yes, Aaron said, there was one thing they could do. During the pregame ceremonies, they could have a moment of silence for Dr. King.
"We don't get involved in politics," Wagner said.
Calmly, dutifully, like an outfielder giving honest chase to a ball he figured was out of play, Aaron tried to explain to Wagner the difference between the political and the spiritual. He was speaking not only as a black athlete but as a representative of Atlanta's team, King's city. It was April 4. What could be more appropriate?
"We don't get involved in politics," Wagner repeated.
And, a few minutes later, Vice President Gerald Ford let go his high hard one to start the game.
These days, sports executives no longer can pretend to be above political considerations. Shoal Creeks compel them to take stands, hopefully moral, probably economical. Both decency and good business required the Augusta National Golf Club to locate a black member at long last. Which, do you suppose, was the main motive, the principal or the principle?
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has recommended that the 1993 Super Bowl be pulled from Phoenix because of Arizona's failure last Tuesday to pass a King Day referendum. Arizona, Montana and New Hampshire are the only states without a holiday honoring the civil rights leader.
"I do not believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the National Football League," Tagliabue said. "I will recommend to the NFL clubs that this Super Bowl be played elsewhere. I am confident that they will endorse my recommendation."
According to a CBS report last Sunday, Tagliabue prepared his statement before the fact. Some analysts are speculating that Greg Gumbel's scoop may have prompted Arizona to dig in its booted heels all the more. But the league's position had been implicit from the instant the game was awarded last March. Arizona would have to irrigate its desert and clean up some of the cactus.
Evan Mecham, a man with an affection for words like "pickaninny," rode to the governorship in the '80s partly on a campaign promise to rescind the King holiday. For unrelated reasons, he departed the statehouse aboard a rail. But his legacy included a national impression, or misimpression, of a place with few blacks, many Mormons and enough right-wing retirees to leave Florida in the dust. If St. Petersburg was God's waiting room, Flagstaff was a depot to an unhappier hunting ground.
Now Arizona is left to tabulate the costs of this image. Voters who thought they were saving a few bucks in holiday wages can say goodbye to an estimated $200 million in Super Bowl plunder. Major league expansion should look away too. Forget the NBA All-Star Game. Meanwhile this whole affair ought to do wonders for recruiting at Arizona State.
Fiesta Bowl organizers would be shivering now even if Virginia were not atop its list, and even if the Cavaliers had no linebackers related to Jesse Jackson. Virginia and Penn State are leading a chorus of concerned voices. All of the nation's black athletes may prefer to vacation elsewhere.
The man, King, still is the subject of some mystery. The complete content of his character remains a matter under study. But the good he did is established. The changes he accomplished are undeniable. This may be racist, but one takes a certain pleasure in the fact that the debate about him is being conducted most importantly among blacks, from the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy to Claybourne Carson. King belongs to all of us, but, fundamentally, to them.
He is a black standard not of perfection but of inspiration, and it is perverse for whites to challenge such an obvious black consensus. The question on the ballot might have been put in a simpler way. Should there be a day for a black hero, as there are so many days for white heroes? If so, they have chosen their man.
Whatever his motives may be, Tagliabue's recommendation is right. The Super Bowl is not just a game. In fact, the smallest part of it is the game. It is an appropriate hammer.
Millions of people not attracted to the sport in the slightest are obliged to celebrate the feast of football, America's national, cultural and conversational imperative. More than just an unofficial national holiday, it has become a secular holy day of obligation. "If Jesus were alive today," says Norman Vincent Peale, "he would be at the Super Bowl."
Sacred imagery is practically irresistible since the mass is conducted on the sabbath near enough to the beginning of the year to constitute an epiphany. The spiritual, the political and the financial. During next January's services, there should be a moment of silence for Arizona.