50 years ago, one amazing month put Atlanta in the national sports spotlight

Muhammad Ali returned to the ring, Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth got serious and Pistol Pete arrived in the NBA

Fifty years ago this month, Black pride and white ambition came together in Atlanta to usher in a new era of Southern sports. The principals were a heavyweight boxing champ returning from exile, a basketball showman from the lily-white SEC, an underappreciated baseball star and the first Black quarterback at a major, predominantly white Southern college.

On Oct. 1, 1970, Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves ended the season with a home run in a 4-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. It was his 38th of the season and the 592nd dinger of his career. While he still trailed Willie Mays in total home runs, it was clear that “Hammerin’ Hank” had a realistic shot at dethroning Babe Ruth as the holder of the greatest record in American team sports.

On Oct. 3, 1970, Georgia Tech won its fourth straight game behind quarterback Eddie McAshan, the school’s first Black scholarship football player. With the 28-3 win over Clemson, the Yellow Jackets reached 13th in the national AP poll, their highest ranking in several years.

On Oct. 17, 1970, “Pistol Pete” Maravich made his NBA debut for the Atlanta Hawks after signing one of the richest rookie contracts in the history of team sports. The Hawks were still playing on the campus of Georgia Tech, but Maravich’s arrival was part of an ambitious plan to redevelop 60 acres of downtown Atlanta around a new coliseum.

And on Oct. 26, 1970, Muhammad Ali returned to the ring after 3½ years of exile due to his opposition to the Vietnam War and defeated Jerry Quarry in three rounds. Boxing authorities in 22 states had refused to host the fight, but thanks to one of the most influential Black politicians in the South, he wound up at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium.

Each of these developments came after a breathtaking period of professional sports expansion in the city. The Braves moved from Milwaukee in 1965 (starting play in Atlanta in 1966) to become the first MLB team south of Washington. The NFL expansion Falcons arrived in 1966. And in 1968, the NBA’s Hawks moved from St. Louis.

Before Atlanta was home to any big league sports franchises, business leaders supportive of progressive Mayor William Hartsfield (1942-1962) had dubbed Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown “The City Too Busy to Hate.” Hartsfield’s successor, Ivan Allen, ordered the removal of all “colored” and “white” signs in City Hall and ended whites-only service in City Hall’s cafeteria when he ate with a Black attorney.

Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves bats during a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

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But Allen was no idealist. In December 1962, he bowed to white homeowners by ordering the construction of barriers to prevent racial integration of a white, middle-class neighborhood called Peyton Forest from nearby Harlan Road, which was predominantly Black. Black residents picketed the Peyton Road wall, and filed petitions in court to have it removed. The barrier made national news. On March 1, 1963, a judge ruled the boundary unconstitutional, and Allen ordered it removed. A few months later, in July 1963, at considerable personal political risk, Allen testified in favor of a civil rights bill before a Senate committee – the sole Southern politician to testify in favor of the Equal Accommodations Act.

The Milwaukee Braves, the first major sports franchise to move to or play in Atlanta, announced their decision in 1965 after Allen built an $18 million, 52,000-seat multisport stadium that year in hopes of attracting a baseball or pro football team. Landing a team was key, along with housing the headquarters of corporate powerhouses Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, to Atlanta becoming a world-class city.

Atlanta was a history-making destination and insurance executive Bill Bartholomay, the head of a consortium that bought the Braves, wanted to be the man who opened up the Deep South to professional sports. That required negotiation with civil rights leaders, who demanded integrated seating and concessions.

Aaron, who was born in the South, had originally opposed the Braves’ move to Atlanta. I know what’s down there,” he said. Leaders with the Atlanta NAACP and the National Urban League asked him to keep an open mind and King told him that playing in Atlanta could be as effective as any protest.

In 1970, Aaron finished the season at .298 with 38 homers and 118 RBIs. He had set a league record for seasons with at least 30 home runs. But the club finished 76-86, a disappointment after being 1969 National League West champs. Mays had already reached 600 homers a year earlier. But in October 1970, Mays was 39 and Aaron only 36.

The Aaron of the early 1970s “never received the proper recognition,” according to beat writer Jesse Outlar of the Atlanta Constitution. In 1969, he had placed third in the voting for NL MVP. On May 17, 1970, he collected his 3,000th hit against the Reds. Even so, Thomas Rogers of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Aaron was “not a household name.”

“I’m glad it’s over,” Aaron told a gaggle of journalists about No. 3,000. “I wanted to get it over with so I could get on with my business.” Writers asked if he had a chance to break Ruth’s home run record. “If I can hit close to 100 home runs the next two years, I’ll think about going after it,” he replied. “I can’t see having a shot at it if I’m not well over 600 by the time I’m 38.”

Hank Aaron (left) of the Atlanta Braves and Willie Mays (right) of the San Francisco Giants at batting practice before the MLB All-Star Game July 14, 1970, at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

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His 592nd homer in October 1970 placed him only 36 behind Mays. And Aaron played his home games in a ballpark friendlier to power hitters than Mays’ windy Candlestick Park, where the left-center field wall was 397 feet and center field 420 feet. By 1969, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s outfield dimensions were 330 feet in left, 400 feet in center and 330 feet in right field, and its fences were only 6 feet high. (In Milwaukee, Aaron had played at County Stadium, where the fences were between 8-feet-4 and 10 feet tall.) Aaron had another advantage over Mays in the chase for Ruth’s record: less physical wear and tear. In 1970, Mays was still playing center field. Aaron was a right fielder, and even played 11 games at first base, an easier position on the legs. The Giants also depended on Mays for his baserunning. He stole 28 bases in 1970, while Aaron stole nine.

While he was chasing records in Atlanta, Aaron was still clear-eyed about race relations. “When people ask me what progress Negroes have made in baseball, I tell them the Negro hasn’t made any progress on the field,” he said in 1970. “We haven’t made any progress in the commissioner’s office. … We don’t have Negro secretaries in some of the big league offices, and I think it’s time that the major leagues and baseball in general just took hold of themselves and started hiring some of these capable people.”

Bobby Dodd had been Georgia Tech’s head football coach for 21 years in 1966, the year the Falcons arrived. His predecessor, William Alexander, had been mentored by John Heisman himself. Dodd resigned in February 1967 after his team finished with a loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl and ranked eighth in the final Associated Press poll. Assistant coach Bud Carson, the architect of “The Tech Wrecker Defense,” took his spot.

Like Maravich, Carson was a Western Pennsylvania transplant who became a Southern sports hero. He had played at North Carolina and coached the defense at the University of South Carolina. The Yellow Jackets finished 4-6 each of his first three seasons.

Things were looking up for the 1970 season, though. Carson had recruited a promising Black signal-caller from Gainesville High School in Florida. McAshan was the first Black football player for Gainesville, and among the first group of Black students to enroll. Between 1966 and 1968, he passed for 61 touchdowns. He was also an elusive runner.

Quarterback Eddie McAshan (left) of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets avoids the rush of a Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman on Oct. 9, 1971, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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“He had good speed, a great throwing arm and he was a great leader,” Jack Thompson, Georgia Tech’s recruiting director in 1968, told the Macon Telegraph. “We spent a lot of time in Gainesville,” Thompson said. “I was there probably four or five times, and you had other coaches that were there as often or more.”

In 1969, McAshan signed with Georgia Tech. Only a year earlier, the university had hired its first Black instructor, William Peace, in the Department of Social Sciences.

Freshmen were ineligible for major college varsity sports in those days. So McAshan made his college debut as a sophomore on Sept. 12, 1970. He engineered a come-from-behind win, leading two late touchdown drives to defeat South Carolina 23-20.

McAshan lived up to his billing: After beating Florida State and Miami, the Yellow Jackets upended Clemson 28-3 on Oct. 3 – their fourth straight win. In October, they were nationally ranked for the first time since Dodd’s departure. McAshan was on the cover of Jet magazine. Actress Ann-Margret and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath visited a Tech practice while filming the movie C.C. & Company in Atlanta.

Tech dropped a close one at Notre Dame but beat Georgia at home 17-7, which earned it a bid to the Sun Bowl. The Yellow Jackets closed the regular season ranked 13th by the Associated Press. They handled Texas Tech 17-9 in their first bowl win since the Gator Bowl following the 1965 season.

In McAshan’s junior year, he completed 53.4% of his passes, but threw only seven touchdowns with 14 interceptions. The team was 6-6, including a loss in the hometown Peach Bowl. Tech rebounded to 7-4-1 with a Liberty Bowl win in 1972. Against Tennessee at Grant Field on Sept. 9, 1972, McAshan started against a Vols unit quarterbacked by Condredge Holloway, the first Black quarterback in the SEC. It was the first time two major predominantly white Southern universities had started Black quarterbacks in the same game.

Ali had not defended his title since March 1967. With his conviction for draft evasion still on appeal, Ali’s publicist Harold Conrad had attempted to secure a boxing license for Ali in 22 states. They came closest in California, Quarry’s home state, but Gov. Ronald Reagan considered Ali a draft dodger.

Harry Pett was a spice company owner and part-time sports promoter in Atlanta. His 30-year-old son-in-law, attorney Robert Kassel, was an Emory University alum interested in promoting his first fight card in the city and wondered if he could arrange a ring return for Ali. He asked Pett, who had pull locally, and Pett suggested a local state senator, Leroy Johnson.

Johnson had graduated from Morehouse College and Atlanta University and earned his law degree from North Carolina Central University. In 1957, he became the first Black person hired by the Fulton County Solicitor General’s office.

Muhammad Ali (right) against Jerry Quarry (left) in the third round of their scheduled 15-round bout.

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He won a seat in the state General Assembly in 1962 and moved up to the state Senate the following year. He soon became one of the most influential Black politicians in the state. “He was the guy you came to see to get things done,” Julian Bond, a Georgia state representative back then, told Michael Arkush for his 2007 book, The Fight of the Century: Ali vs. Frazier March 8, 1971.

Johnson appealed to Gov. Lester Maddox by explaining Ali deserved a second chance. Maddox’s son Lester Jr. had once been arrested for burglary, and the judge in the case waived a jail sentence, so the governor was sympathetic to second chances.

The unlikely combo of Johnson and Maddox, who had infamously chased Black people away from his restaurants with a pistol in one hand and an ax handle in the other, helped pave the way for a most improbable return by persuading the Atlanta Athletic Commission to grant Ali a boxing license on Aug. 12, 1970.

It was announced Ali would fight Quarry on Oct. 26 at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. Maddox then succumbed to public pressure and recanted his support. But Johnson learned municipalities had authority on managing events in their cities, and if the mayor of Atlanta approved the contest, the governor could not stop it. Mayor Sam Massell, for whom Johnson had helped turn out the pivotal Black vote, was on board. The big fight would add a feather to the city’s cap as a host of major athletics. Maddox, on the other hand, proclaimed a statewide day of mourning for the fight’s date, and ordered flags flown at half-staff.

The day of the fight, Ali took in a movie at the Loew’s Grand Theatre downtown. Afterward, as recounted in Jose Torres’ 1971 book Sting Like A Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story, a reporter approached and asked:

“What do you think about the governor’s announcement declaring the day of your fight with Quarry a day of mourning?”

“A day of what?”

“A day of mourning.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You know, a sad day … a black day.”

“Oh, that. Yes, that we gonna have!”

Among the more than 5,000 people who were shoehorned into the auditorium that night were Coretta Scott King, Diana Ross, Jesse Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Curtis Mayfield, Mary Wilson, Arthur Ashe, The Temptations, Henry Aaron, Donn Clendenon, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and The Supremes (whom Ross had just left to pursue a solo career). Ring magazine publisher Bert Sugar later called it “the greatest collection of Black power and Black money ever assembled.”

“It was more than a fight, and it was an important moment for Atlanta, because that night, Atlanta came into its own as the black political capital of America.” — former NAACP chairman Julian Bond on Ali vs. Quarry

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” former NAACP chairman Julian Bond told author Thomas Hauser for his book, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. “The black elite of America was there. It was a coronation; the King regaining his throne. The whole audience was composed of stars; legitimate stars, underworld stars. You had all these people from the fast lane who were there, and the style of dress was fantastic. Men in ankle-length fur coats; women wearing smiles and pearls and not much else. It was more than a fight, and it was an important moment for Atlanta, because that night, Atlanta came into its own as the black political capital of America.”

Atlanta had not hosted a major fight since 1939, and it showed. The fight was promoted by Kassel’s Sports Action Inc., which left the fighters’ gloves at the airport, and forgot to put stools in the fighters’ corners. (They finally arrived as a result of a last-minute hardware store run, still bearing their $3.98 price tags.)

The 25-year-old Quarry was a competent counterpuncher, with a record of 34-4-4. He was rated the top heavyweight contender in the world by Ring magazine going into the fight, with victories over Buster Mathis, George Chuvalo and Floyd Patterson.

Ali entered the auditorium to a thunderous reception. The bout began with Ali making Quarry miss his lunging shots, and peppering the Californian with a barrage of jabs. In the second round, the nervous crowd saw Ali barely elude several menacing Quarry hooks. But even when Quarry connected, his rusty target was not hurt. The third round saw Ali continue to circle and backpedal, avoiding damage. Quarry finally caught Ali on the ropes with a stiff hook to the midsection. But Ali had opened a cut over one of Quarry’s eyes, releasing a stream of blood. During the break, Quarry’s cornermen inspected the gash and summoned the ring physician. To Quarry’s chagrin, the doctor requested that referee Tony Perez stop the fight.

The victor’s emotions were mixed, according to a recollection in The Ring. “Quarry was tricky, he hit hard and if it wasn’t for my speed it wouldn’t have ended the way it did. I managed to miss just a few punches – he didn’t hit me but about once or twice, and that was to the body [and] not in the face,” Ali said. “I’m a little stronger now than I was the day I retired and I think I’m a much better fighter now. I’m sorry the cut did happen because I didn’t really get enough action. Three rounds isn’t enough.”

Apparently, neither was six years of a name change. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page headline, Clay Wins By TKO.

In 1967, St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner lobbied the local government for an arena renovation and was refused on the grounds the team wasn’t drawing well enough. Disillusioned, Kerner sold the team to Tom Cousins, a wealthy real estate developer, and Carl Sanders, the recent governor of Georgia. King had been dead less than a month when the move was announced on May 3, 1968. Two days later, Abernathy led the Southern stage of the Poor People’s Campaign in a journey from Atlanta to Washington.

While the new ownership group pursued a downtown arena, the Hawks would begin play at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum. In 1968, Tech’s own basketball team was still all-white.

A Journal sportswriter opined, “When the St. Louis Hawks swooped down upon us this weekend from the blue, we were not prepared. … For a moment, we felt like a wife whose husband has brought her home 300 pounds of bass, and no deep-freeze.”

The city commissioned a study for construction of a 15,000-seat civic center, which emphasized the significance of gentrification in the area around the proposed coliseum.

Pete Maravich (right) of the Atlanta Hawks dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics during a game at Boston Garden.

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“I was concerned with developing 60 acres of downtown Atlanta. A coliseum was the key to the whole thing. Some focal point to build around,” said Cousins, according to an article on the Hawks’ arrival in Georgia Historical Quarterly. Allen, the mayor, had told Cousins, “Get your franchise first, then we’ll build a coliseum.”

“That’s the reason I bought the Hawks. I needed them to get the development going,” Cousins said.

Race was always top of mind for the team and its players. In 1968, when Hawks All-Star “Pogo” Joe Caldwell arrived at the Holiday Inn Atlanta, accompanied by his wife, daughters and sister, a carful of white people yelled, “Hey, n—–s!” Caldwell’s sister shrugged, “Well, you’re in the South now, brother.”

The team’s racial makeup became a factor in the 1970 governor’s race. Sanders had been a moderate Southern governor from January 1963 to January 1967, but the state didn’t allow governors to serve successive terms. Another political moderate, Jimmy Carter, aimed to follow in Sanders’ political lane and ran against Maddox in 1966. Carter had welcomed Black parishioners at his hometown church, refused to focus on race relations during his campaign and rallied against Black voter disenfranchisement. But Carter finished third in the ’66 election, the year the Braves arrived. In 1970, he ran again, this time against Sanders. Carter promised not to be beholden to any “bloc” (a euphemism for Black voters). His campaign even paid for ads touting Black candidate C.B. King in an effort to sway votes from Sanders.

A group supporting Carter distributed flyers featuring a couple of Black Hawks players dousing Sanders with champagne in celebration of a division championship. The image, known as “The Champagne Shampoo,” found its way to KKK rallies and white rural events. Many local political pundits linked the leaflet to Carter’s press secretary Bill Pope. Bill Shipp of the Atlanta Constitution professed to have seen Pope himself handing the image out at a Ku Klux Klan gathering. When Carter denied knowledge of the broadside, veteran journalists were skeptical. Reg Murphy, a former Constitution editor, opined, “He obviously was operating on the basis of, ‘Dont tell me about it; but get the job done.’ ” Carter won the election.

Despite compiling winning records in their first two seasons in Atlanta, the Hawks only drew 188,464 fans per season. That was part of the motivation for signing Maravich for $1.9 million — at the time, it was reportedly the richest rookie contract in sports. Atlanta coach Richie Guerin told UPI, “Drafting Pete Maravich is good for business.” ABC TV bought the rights to Maravichs pro debut, with a cancellation clause if he did not play due to injury.

Maravich made his NBA debut against the Milwaukee Bucks on Oct. 17. In a pregame promo, ABCs Keith Jackson primed the audience, “You’re looking at Pete Maravich. At 22 years of age, it’s reported that he signed a $2 million basketball contract. While at LSU, he established the record as the greatest scorer in college history. Upcoming on ABC’s Wide World of Sports! Pete Maravich in his first professional basketball game!

ABC analyst Jack Twyman warned viewers not to expect Maravich to be the dynamic scorer he was in college, and to anticipate he would have more of a playmaker role in Atlanta. He scored only seven points in the opener, though he tried to compensate with unexpected passes.

Early in the season, Guerin worked Maravich in slowly, deferring to the veteran backcourt of Lou Hudson and Walt Hazzard. Still the rookie delivered on one important metric: attendance increased by an average of 2,000 fans a game.

Maravich went on to average 23 points in 36 minutes per game, and made First-Team All-Rookie. Still, Guerin said, “I hope we never have to live through another year like this one.” Many of the veterans resented the attention given to Maravich and his high salary. The Hawks finished 36-46, bowing in the opening round of the Eastern Division playoffs to the defending champion New York Knicks.

By the end of the decade, Atlanta had elected a Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, hosted an NCAA mens Final Four and added an NHL team, the Flames. After his football career was over, McAshan returned to Georgia Tech and graduated in 1979 with a degree in industrial management. Aaron broke Ruths record in 1974, and the Braves played on a national cable TV network. Pistol Pete moved on to help popularize the NBA in another Southern market, New Orleans (before being dealt to Boston). After multiple title bouts against the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, Ali captured the heavyweight crown a record third time in 1978, defeating Leon Spinks in the New Orleans Superdome where Maravich often plied his trade. And Carter shook up the world by declaring his candidacy for U.S. president.

Bijan C. Bayne is author of Martha's Vineyard Basketball: How A Resort League Defined Notions Of Race & Class.