What does 715 Mean?

By David C. Nutter
I went to the Braves game with my son, Jim, last night. It was the season home opener, and he is on Spring Break this week. A couple of months ago, we were planning some father-son spring break outings and bought opening day tickets. We are both fans. A great way to spend an evening with my 16 year old boy. That was the extent of my thinking.

Several days ago, we became aware that it was the 40th Anniversary of Henry Aaron’s monumental 715th home run breaking Babe Ruth’s then 39 year old record for most home runs in a major league career and that there would be a special ceremony before the game. We got to the ballpark very early. I sensed this would be a special moment, and I did not want to entrust it to the fickle Atlanta transportation grid.

The ceremony began. Some video. Some speeches from Baseball Brass. At last the moment arrived. The man, himself, approached the podium at home plate using a walker because of a recent fall but with a face still full of vibrancy. And, unexpectedly, my eyes filled with tears. Why? A great moment with my son? Oh yes, but I have shared many great moments with my son and haven’t been reduced to tears. Being present at a cool sports moment? No, no. In my own life journey I moved away from cool sports moments some years ago. There’s nothing lasting in them.

Remembrance of times past? Certainly. Forty years ago I was 12 years old living in Ft. Lauderdale. Baseball, particularly, and sports in general, was my life. Hank Aaron was my favorite player. I had seen him play at Atlanta Fulton Co. Stadium courtesy of an uncle who took me when I came to visit. I loved his unique style in approaching the plate and roaming right field. I was also an amateur baseball historian. So there was no question I would be watching the game on April 8, 1974. I knew I was watching sports history. It was the coolest of cool sports moments, and I was really into cool sports moments in 1974.

But my tears on April 8, 2014 was more than that. You see, in 1974, I shared my enthusiasm for Henry Aaron with another. His name was Samuel Green, but we all called him “Slim.” By 1974 he had worked for my great-grandfather’s family in Atlanta for more than 50 years–since he was about 12 himself. He had known my mother her entire life. Driving Miss Daisy may as well have been Slim’s story. And having no children of his own, he took a particular interest in me when we came to visit throughout the 1960’s.

One of my fondest memories as a very little boy was walking with Slim down the very long driveway to get the mail on my visits. He was one of the kindest persons I have ever known. He watched and encouraged my interest in Henry Aaron after the Braves came to Atlanta in 1966. He saved special newspaper articles for me. He gave me posters and autographed baseballs. He talked Braves baseball with me in the kitchen and wanted to know about my little league play.

For me, at the time, this was simply part of our friendship and our shared interest in the Braves and Henry Aaron. And on one level that is all it was for Slim as well. He was not a man with agendas. But forty years later, at the age of 52, I now know that there was much more at work. One of the many oddities of human existence is that we are born into situations outside of our choosing, and when we arrive on the planet, we are totally ignorant of any context. Time being relative, as Einstein demonstrated, our frame of reference as children is very narrow and limited. So all I saw on April 8, 1974 was baseball. All I knew in the 1960’s and early 1970’s regarding Slim was a friendship with a very kind man. But Slim in 1974 was in his mid-60’s. Oh, all that his eyes had seen: Jim Crow, the Klan, Jesse Owens, Marian Anderson, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Acts and finally Henry Aaron. 715 meant a lot more than a great sports record being broken. It was the final breaking of a bad idea.

At the Lawyers Club dinner meeting last month, Civil Rights legend, Dr. Joseph Lowery, in a moving talk, shared some of his personal recollections from the Civil Rights Movement. His theme was that the Civil Rights Movement was good, not just for African Americans, but for all Americans. And he said that as a Methodist Pastor he believed that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded because it was based on God’s word, the Bible. If Dr. Lowery is correct, then Hank Aaron’s 715th was God’s exclamation point on the story of the Civil Rights movement.

To see an African-American break the greatest sports record in America was to a man like Slim, I’m sure, a great sign of progress and hope for the future–a hopeful future that Slim would not personally benefit from (he died suddenly only five months after Henry Aaron’s great home run), but nonetheless one he could celebrate. Further, to see a white youngster looking up to an African American sports star meant that the Dream was indeed becoming a reality. I believe he understood that on April 8, 1974, though I did not.

Certainly Henry Aaron understood all that. Indeed, he carried the weight of it beginning in about 1968 when he hit his 500th home run and began to realize that he had a real chance to break the record of records. His book I Had a Hammer tells the story. A kind, quiet man himself, Henry Aaron found himself thrust on the world’s stage. His great talent and his hard work had in the course of twenty years in big league ball put him at the pinnacle of his sport. But it represented much more, and he knew it. It represented the death of a bad idea. And bad ideas die hard. So hate mail and threats came as the record approached. Yet Henry Aaron faced it bravely and resolutely and dispatched Babe Ruth’s record with no delay.

And so, when Henry Aaron made his way slowly to the microphone on April 8, 2014, my heart was flooded with all these memories. I was filled afresh with admiration for Henry Aaron and what he had accomplished and the courage and grace with which he did it. Here was a man truly worthy of great honor.

I was reminded of my friend Slim and how much I loved him, and how much he loved me. And I saw before me the better America that Dr. Lowery spoke about. I was glad that Slim had caught a glimpse of it too. Last night Henry Aaron was rightly celebrated by an affectionate, multi-racial crowd, and he received it with humble gratitude. I wondered–for how many was last night just another cool sports moment? For me, it was much more than that.