The fight promoters were prescient. White rioters attacked Black revelers from countryside to city as news of a Black man’s toppling of Jeffries wafted across the nation.
The second preserve of white supremacy in American sports, one far longer-lasting, was the home run. As baseball writer and commentator Tom Verducci once described it in Sports Illustrated, “The home run is America.”
Which explained why Hank Aaron, a Black son of Mobile, Ala., became the target of virulent epistolary racists as he waged his assault in the 1970s on the venerated, generations-old baseball record established by Babe Ruth.
Baseball, after all, was anointed America’s pastime, no matter that it imitated the worst of this country by segregating itself by race. As French American cultural essayist Jacques Barzun observed, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” And Ruth, whom sportswriters once recalled with glee being chased naked down the aisle of a train car by an equally naked and knife-wielding woman, was as wildly representative of white masculinity on the baseball diamond as was Jeffries in the ring.
Even on Friday, when Aaron, 86, died quietly in his sleep, his role in the lineage of Black men, particularly athletes, who dared engage white supremacy in this country was not fully appreciated. Maybe it was because he wasn’t profligate as was Johnson. Or as outspoken as was Paul Robeson. Or as performative as were Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
But what Aaron did, what he accomplished, was more radical than Jackie Robinson, his idol. Indeed, Aaron went where Robinson never did. As a 19-year-old, he was part of a quintet, including his Black Puerto Rican roommate Felix Mantilla, that integrated the South Atlantic League, better known as the Sally League. The league was rooted deep in the Jim Crow South — in Augusta, Macon and Savannah, Ga.; in Columbia and Charleston, S.C.
Aaron was sold to the club in Jacksonville, Fla., by his Negro League team in Indianapolis. Florida by then had already lived down to its reputation of leading the country in per capita lynchings of Black people. The atmosphere led one writer to admire, “Aaron led the league in everything, except hotel accommodations.”
It was said that when Aaron finished his lone season there in 1953 — leading the Sally League with a .362 batting average, 115 runs, 208 hits, 36 doubles, 338 total bases and 135 RBI — Whites in Jacksonville were forced to at least accept him. The next year, he was in the big leagues in Milwaukee, seven years after Major League Baseball allowed Robinson to reintegrate its game after it had previously defrocked the first African-descendant player, Fleetwood Walker, and any who dreamed to come after him.
Aaron became the leader of a class of men, including Robinson, who exposed the mythology of white exceptionalism. Baseball didn’t need to finally agree last month to count Negro League statistics as validation of Black players’ capacity during the game’s apartheid years. When Aaron won the National League MVP award in 1957, 10 years after Robinson first played for the Dodgers, the award had already been captured by Black players in five of the six seasons before him. When he won his fourth home run crown in 1967, it was the 11th time a Black player outslugged all others in the NL since 1947. When Roberto Clemente won his fourth NL batting title in 1967, it was the 10th time in the 20 years after Robinson’s Dodgers debut that a Black player was the NL’s best hitter. And after Robinson won the stolen bases title his rookie year, only two White players in the NL would win it again until Craig Biggio did during the strike-shortened 1994 season.
So what Aaron eventually did April 8, 1974, with television cameras whirring, not censored, and projecting the moment live into homes across the country, was more than break Ruth’s generations-old record.
“It will mean a hell of a lot not only to me but to Black people all over the world,” Aaron told the Milwaukee Journal in June 1973 of eventually breaking Ruth’s record. “Not only because the record is held by a White man but because we as Blacks didn’t get a chance to get into baseball until the late ’40s.”
As Aaron trotted around the bases that night at Atlanta Stadium after hitting his 715th home run, he lanced a final myth about race promoted by sport, a myth about superiority that had metastasized not just through sports — where Black men could not be envisioned as baseball managers or quarterbacks or football coaches — but through society.
All of that didn’t dawn on me at that moment as I watched it with my folks on our TV in the family room. I was too young to realize all of what sports meant. I wasn’t cognizant, nor was most of this country, of an observation Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Sut Jhally would make years later. “While the symbolic power of sport is derived from the appearance of the separation of sport and social life,” Jhally wrote, “its cultural and ideological role is based instead on that unity.”
That is what Aaron’s playing career confirmed. And in accelerating the removal of the malignancy of imagined racial superiority, Aaron helped bring to an end the campaign that Jack Johnson started.