I’m not wishing injury upon Bonds, and this sentiment of mine is not borne of any animus toward Bonds himself. I’m gleefully untroubled by the steroids issue, and I’m also not one of these who levels his selective misanthropy at the modern ballplayer. I’m just someone who has a deep and abiding admiration for Hank Aaron, such that I want to see him cling to this record until we do a collective header back into the primordial soup whence we came.
In the baseball sense and on an entirely human level, Mr. Aaron is a hero of mine. I remember as a boy–a boy weaned on the modest offensive statistical bestowals of the 1980s Cardinals–eyeballing Aaron’s numbers and being stupefied by their…girth? The man did a lot of everything, and he did it for a very long time.
When I was 11, my dear sister gave me what is to this day one of my most cherished possessions: a 1968 Topps Hank Aaron Card. It’s not worth a lot of money on the memorabilia front, 25 bucks maybe, but the emotional cachet it has for me is immeasurable. Over the years, I somehow managed to lose almost every baseball card I ever owned, which was something of a feat considering how many I once had (and I got the them the old-fashioned way–by dint of hundreds of yeoman-like bike rides to the 7-11 and arduous mastication of scores upon scores of Topps, Donruss and Fleer “chewing” gum planks that bore a puzzling resemblance, in both taste and texture, to dust-covered wainscoting). But I never lost that ’68 card of Mr. Aaron. That’s because I kept it separate from my other cards.
In sorting my baseball cards, I operated by an informal yet ruthlessly administered caste system. Cards of Cardinal players were pinned to a bulletin board (at the time, my understanding of the nuances of depreciation was somewhat lacking), Manny Sanguillen, because I got a kick out of the unspeakably goofy smile he sported in the 1981 Topps series, earned a place in a special card case that was shaped like an athletic locker. Doug Flynn, for instance, was probably used as a coaster or put to a more sinister purpose.
But Aaron’s card I kept in my nightstand. Before I had that card, I admired him for his statistics and the exalted nature of his career totals. But his face on that card–he looked vaguely uncomfortable, yet dutiful, stoic and pleasant at the same time–is what first engaged me beyond the numbers.
As I grew older, I developed an appreciation for what he endured, both early in his career and in his pursuit of Babe Ruth‘s home run record. I was born and raised in Mississippi, so I’ve always a preternatural affection for players from the South. Aaron was an Alabama native–like my mother and father–but, as a Southerner, you’re allowed no more than a halting pride when a black man of Mr. Aaron’s vintage goes on to acclaim and accomplishment; you know that as much as he’s a product of the region, he’s also a victim of its crueler natures. Aaron and the vile treatment he received from whites in the South and elsewhere is a regrettable object lesson of this idea.
He’s told stories of when, as a young player for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, he and his teammates went to a diner behind Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. They were allowed to eat, which was not to be assumed in those days, but the restaurant workers, rather than wash and re-use the plates they’d eaten on, broke them right in front of the team. Plates that black men have eaten off of, you see, were not to be used again.
Aaron broke the color line in the Sally League and regularly tolerated a maelstrom of epithets, all while trying to hone his craft as a 19-year-old. He was later poised to integrate the Southern League–a Job-like encumbrance if ever there were one–when Bobby Thomson, then a left fielder for the Milwaukee Braves, broke his leg in spring training. That accelerated Aaron’s timetable and made him a starter in the major leagues at the age of 20. He would be the last Negro Leaguer to make the jump to the integrated major leagues. And we all know what he did from there.
Frustrated by age and his superficially declining numbers (this was the age of the pitcher), Aaron almost retired after the 1968 season, but historian Lee Allen, that following spring training, imparted to him what was before him: the force of history. He would soon eclipse 3,000 hits and was within hailing distance of Ruth’s putatively unassailable all-time home run mark. Aaron thought better of retirement and then seized upon his pursuit of Ruth with imponderable resolve…because that’s what would be required of him.
In 1970, he became the first black ballplayer to log 3,000 hits. The following season, at the age of 37, he clouted a career-best 47 homers. The 1972 season saw Aaron hit 34 more and close within 41 of Ruth. His 1973 campaign was perhaps his most remarkable. Aaron, by then 39 years of age, ripped 40 homers and slugged .643 for the season. That, of course, put him within a single homer of Ruth.
As his pursuit of Ruth reached critical mass, so did the racist enmity directed at him. The Atlanta Police Department assigned him a bodyguard because of mounting death threats. For a few desperate hours, stories circulated that Aaron’s daughter had been kidnapped from her college dorm room. The U.S. Postal Service even awarded him a plaque designating him as the recipient of more mail than anyone else in the country, save a handful of politicians. That would be roughly 930,000 letters, an unfortunate portion of which was hateful and threatening.
As the 1974 season opened, the Braves hoped to hold Aaron out of the first series of the year so that he might tie and break the record in Atlanta. The commissioner’s office nixed the idea, mandating that Aaron would play in at least two of the first three games of the season in Cincinnati. Aaron homered to tie Ruth in his first at-bat of the year (the first-ever home run in Riverfront Stadium). He sat out the second game and went 0-for-3 in the third. Aaron and company returned to Atlanta, and on April 8, 1974 against the Dodgers, with one man on and no one out in the fourth, Aaron vaulted an Al Downing slider into the bullpen behind the left field wall to become baseball’s home run king. Aaron rounded the bases with his head bowed like a penitent, as he was wont to do, and was met at home plate by a coterie of teammates and his mother. It was over.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn chose not to attend the game, which is a decision that to this day confounds me. But Aaron was what he always was and still is: gracious, modest, dignified and powerfully taciturn, in spite of harrowing circumstances, unimaginable pressures and the basest kind of hatred all about him.
The 30th anniversary of Aaron’s historic home run came and went last week without a great deal of attention. Reflect upon how the hometown fans of Atlanta saw fit to cheer more loudly for Pete Rose than for Aaron at the unveiling of the All-Century Team in 1999, and you’ll grasp the pattern here. Baseball fans, and history itself, owe a staggering debt to Aaron. My subjective view is that he’s not getting it. That’s why I’m hoping this hoariest of sports records will never again totter and fall. But even if that day does come to pass, I’d still like to say this: Thanks for everything, Mr. Aaron.