When Hank Aaron tied and subsequently broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 Home Runs, the socio-political backdrop involved a great deal of deeply entrenched racism. Hammerin’ Hank played in the South, and his career spanned Brown and Swann— the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, as the Supreme Court dragged the American people into the present, into reality, kicking and screaming. The novel concept that people are people, nobody’s got a god-given right to be held above a fellow human- that took a while to sink in, and still hasn’t quite fully done so. Racism will, sadly, forever dog American history, and will never be fully expelled from our society. Indeed, it’s one of those troubling real-world things that baseball is designed to help us escape. Baseball’s just a game, baseball’s more than a game, baseball is tied to our national soul, baseball’s been racist, baseball’s atoned, baseball will never fully atone.
Hank Aaron’s first two home runs of 1974 were surrounded by death threats, bigotry, excitement, and downright jubilation. It seems terribly exciting- if anyone who remembers it first-hand would comment here I’d appreciate it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of an internet in 1974, and pretty much anything contemporaneous about Hank that’s worth reading involves paid archives. So here’s a link to his well-crafted Wikipedia page and the suggestion that you go out and read something about Hank at your local library. He was a quiet, likable titan of sport, from all accounts. Hank played in the Negro Leagues, the “separate but equal” place to see damn fine baseball through most of the 20th Century, at the beginning of his career, and went from there to a long career as one of the super-elite three or four most consistent offensive producers in baseball’s history (Ruth, Williams, Cobb, I’d say).
Here’s a teaser for what looks to be a pretty decent documentary on Hank’s time with the Eau Claire Bears: Youtube.
And now Barry Bonds. He’s tied Aaron. The internet has it covered. He’s no pioneer, he’s a cheater, he’s a terrific hitter, he’s a circus, he’s ultimately a letdown. I prefer to cling to 755 as the important number, wherever Barry ends up, and to celebrate Aaron, and pretty much agree with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Terrence Moore:
Actually, Aaron is still in it, but in a wonderful way. Whenever those among the public hear Bonds’ name, either positively or negatively, they usually hear Aaron’s name soon afterward. Not only that, when Aaron’s name does surface during conversations involving Bonds, Aaron’s name often is surrounded by implied hugs and kisses. In fact, Bonds once told me with a smile at his locker at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, “I’m helping to keep Hank’s name out there.”
That’s nice of Bonds, but Aaron really doesn’t need his help. For 23 Hall of Fame seasons without the hint of scandal, the eternal king of home-run kings helped himself, thank you.
Unlike George Herman Ruth last time around, Aaron’s still alive, and I think he’s been pretty classy- all things considered. We can only speculate what Ruth would have said or done in April 1974, but I personally doubt he would have taken things in stride; I mean, I get pissed when my bar trivia scores get beaten, I can’t imagine if I had the all-time home run record.
Can’t wait to see how Barry handles it. C’mon, A-Rod.