On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron sent a 1-0 pitch from Al Downing over the outfield wall. It was Aaron’s 715th career homer—Babe Ruth was no longer the home run king.
Aaron’s blast was one of the most iconic plays in baseball history, but it wasn’t the only clutch performance that night. His bodyguard, Calvin Wardlaw, made a snap decision that ensured Aaron’s big moment would be remembered as a happy one.
Racial tensions were high as Aaron chased Ruth’s record; some white fans were uncomfortable that an African American ballplayer was hot on the heels of the beloved Babe. For Aaron, the atmosphere wasn't just tense, but dangerous. The Braves were receiving so many letters addressed to Aaron as he approached the 715 mark that the U.S. Post Office gave him a plaque for receiving more mail than any other American (not including politicians). A frighteningly high number of these envelopes contained vicious, violent hate mail. Even his daughter received death threats at college. Because of all this, Aaron stayed in a different hotel from his teammates and was followed everywhere by Wardlaw.
On the night of the historic homer, Wardlaw was in the stands, watching out for Aaron with a .38 pistol in his binocular case. After the ball cleared the outfield wall a strange thing happened: Two young white men, high school seniors from Waycross, Georgia, somehow made it down on to the field and ran right alongside Aaron as he rounded the bases. We now know them as just a pair of excited fans bent on commemorating the occasion with a feat of their own, but in the moment and amid all the tension, they posed a potential danger. Wardlaw had to gauge how threatening they were and whether to draw his gun and fire.
In 2007, Wardlaw described his thought process to the New York Daily News: "People asked me afterward, 'Where were you for the big moment, Calvin?' And I tell them that my instinct was at that moment that even if I could have gotten out there, my man was not in danger. And I tell them something else: What if I had decided to shoot my two-barreled .38 at those two boys, if I thought he was in a life-threatening situation, and had hit Hank Aaron instead, on the night he hit No. 715?"
Wardlaw kept his gun in its inconspicuous hiding spot and joined the crowd of teammates swarming the slugger at home plate. The bodyguard congratulated his charge, saying, "I'm glad it's over."
This post originally appeared in 2015.