In 1963, the year of Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington, Henry Aaron exploded for one of his finest seasons: He hit .319 and led the league in runs (121), RBIs (130), home runs (44), slugging (.586), OPS (.977 -- not that anyone articulated the importance of that statistic at the time) and total bases (370). It was also the year his Milwaukee Braves teammate Joe Torre noticed a significant alteration in Aaron's swing, a change that traded his natural right-center alley power for pulling the ball to left. It was the beginning, Torre believed, of Henry's move away from his once-stated goal of breaking Stan Musial's all-time National League record of 3,630 hits and toward a direct assault on Babe Ruth's all-time home run record of 714 home runs.
The year also signified a political awakening for Aaron; once considered reserved, he became drawn to the positions of writer James Baldwin and, like many African-Americans, taken by the civil rights positions of both King and Malcolm X. These were not airy, theoretical considerations; they contained real-life implications for a man navigating the best path for achieving equality for African-Americans. In interviews, Aaron rejected ballplayer clichés and began to speak with a sharper political tone. A year earlier, the Milwaukee Braves had been sold to Chicago businessman Bill Bartholomay. Almost immediately, rumors circulated that the team would soon relocate to Atlanta -- and Aaron had no interest in ever returning to the Deep South, where he was born.
1963 represented the convergence of Henry's athletic skill and political awareness, but it also represented a pivotal moment in the history of the American South, one that significant political leaders from Andrew Young to Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter believe has never been properly regarded in the evolution of the civil rights movement.
"People always talk about the marches and the protests, but what they don't talk about is how big a part sports played in the economic part of the movement, in changing the perception of what the South was," Young told me recently. "We had no professional sports teams, and the mayor, Ivan Allen, believed attracting pro sports and big pro events would be critical to proving to business leaders around the country that we did believe in a 'new South.'
"In Atlanta, we could've gone either way. We had a choice to make: Did we want to be Birmingham, or did we want to be something different? In places like Little Rock, they tried to desegregate from the bottom up, starting with the schools. In Atlanta, we took a top-down approach. It was the business leaders, Coca-Cola especially, that decided that it would have been to our political and economic disadvantage to fight civil rights with fire hoses and dogs and more segregation, the way they did in Birmingham. Birmingham had the infrastructure to remain the region's economic powerhouse, but instead it became isolated. It was the symbol for our business community of what not to be. And it was the business and political leaders who believed that the one way to be a world-class city was to have sports teams."
Within three years, from 1965 to 1968, during the greatest period of change in American history to King's death, Atlanta added the Braves (in 1965; beginning play in 1966), the NFL expansion Falcons (1966) and, in 1968, the NBA's Hawks, who moved from St. Louis. One of the first concessions Allen made (with the backing of the city's corporate leaders) was to prohibit segregated seating and facilities for sporting events -- a sweeping victory in contrast to the two decades it took to desegregate spring training facilities in Florida.
It would be at a sporting event that many people, black and white, first shared public restrooms, sat in the same sections of public events or drank at the same water fountain. It would be through sports that national business leaders came to believe that the South now offered viable business opportunities, that it was a safer place to invest. Allen was so confident that sports could be a unifier to a segregated city that he began construction on what would be Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium before the Braves had even agreed to move.
"There was general agreement that one of the ways to make Atlanta a big league city was to bring baseball and football; it was a concurrent proposal," Young recalled. "When it looked like they could get the Braves, the mayor, Ivan Allen, and Mills B. Lane -- who was the president of C&S Bank, which became NationsBank, which is now Bank of America -- they almost bragged that they built a stadium with money they didn't have on land they didn't own for a team they didn't have yet. And if they tried to do that today, they'd all be in jail."
When the Braves began preparations to move south, cultivating Henry Aaron was a key. C. Miles Smith, president of the local NAACP, met with Henry, asking him to soften his rhetoric about not wanting to return to the South. Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, wrote personal letters to Henry, asking him to give the South a second chance and saying that his endorsement of Atlanta would help change attitudes.
Then Aaron met King, who told him success in Atlanta would be as important as any protest.
"Martin was a big baseball fan. We would have our meetings, dealing with strategies for the movement, and during our breaks we would all go out and play. We played softball. Martin used to play second or third base, and he loved to hit," Young recalled.
In one of their earliest meetings, Aaron told King that he was embarrassed that he wasn't more publicly visible in the front lines of the movement, Young said. "We told him not to worry. When you talked to Henry Aaron, you knew how he felt about civil rights. We told him just to keep hitting that ball. That was his job."
Aaron would be the first black superstar playing on the first big league baseball team in the Deep South, and life was still demeaning to blacks in Atlanta. Rich's, the region's biggest department store (and main advertiser with the Braves), had a long-held company policy of not allowing blacks to try on clothes, for fear that whites would not want to buy clothes that black customers had worn, even if only for a moment in the fitting room.
Bob Hope, an Atlanta kid who called the team a year in advance of the move from Milwaukee to get a job and spent years promoting the Braves, knew how ingrained the white attitudes regarding blacks truly were. "When I was in high school, our football coach told us that the sweat of a black kid would burn you," Hope recalled. "They told us black kids wouldn't just tackle you but in the piles they would bite you and you'd get diseases. That was one of the reasons why we never played against black teams," he said.
The state's governor, Lester Maddox, was an unrepentant racist who was elected on a segregationist platform. One of the men he defeated in the 1967 Democratic primary, Jimmy Carter, was part of a new generation of Southern politicians who learned from Birmingham.
"Having sports teams legitimized us," President Carter told me. "It gave us the opportunity to be known for something that was not going to be a national embarrassment. Henry Aaron was a big part of that because he integrated pro sports in the Deep South, which was no small thing. He was the first black man that white fans in the South cheered for."
Carter knew the power of sports. He remembered listening to the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling bout as a boy, and at once understanding the deep roots of white feelings of superiority toward blacks. Carter recalled the whites in his neighborhood along the dirt roads of Plains, Ga., rooting for Schmeling, and they could hear the roars of the black citizens down the street when Louis destroyed Schmeling in the first round.
"For our community, this fight had heavy racial overtones, with almost unanimous support at our all-white school for the European over the American," Carter wrote in his book "An Hour Before Daylight." "A delegation of our black neighbors came to ask Daddy if they could listen to the broadcast, and we put the radio in the window so the assembled crowd in the yard could hear it. The fight ended abruptly, in the first round, with Louis almost killing Schmeling. There was no sound from outside -- or inside -- the house. We heard a quiet 'Thank you, Mr. Earl,' and then our visitors walked silently out of the yard, crossed the road and the railroad tracks, entered the tenant houses, and closed the door. Then all hell broke loose, and their celebration lasted all night long. Daddy was tight-lipped, but all the mores of our segregated society had been honored."
Eventually, professional sports would have come to the South, just as surely as integration. Without the partnership of civil rights and political leaders, who chose sports as a social bridge and economic stimulus -- instead of tougher segregation policies -- the history of sports and the Deep South would have been severely altered.
After Atlanta, the broader South followed: The AFL added the Miami Dolphins in 1966, the NFL the New Orleans Saints the following year. The University of Alabama football team finally integrated in 1971, the NHL brought the Flames to Atlanta the following year and the NBA added the New Orleans Jazz in 1974, creating a new region of sports teams.
Among sports fans, Atlanta in the 1960s might not be as well known or heralded as Brooklyn in 1947, but it is no less an important example of the crucial intersection of sports and society, topped by the lasting image of King taking a break from changing the world by fielding grounders in the infield.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.