Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hammering Hank

I remember when Hank Aaron hit 715. And I didn’t want to see him hit it. It wasn’t because he was black. Aaron was a good guy. It was because I didn’t want the Babe’s record erased. Babe was baseball. He was black and white footage that made us all feel really friggin’ great. And while Aaron was also baseball no one knew who he was. Who else should break this thing? Willie Mays, maybe. Mickey Mantle, certainly . But who knew this Aaron guy?

No one ever talks about this. In this age of 24/7 sports coverage, no one talks about the fact that at the time no one ever cared about this guy. Again, not because he was black – but because he was so colorless. He was pale to the glory of eons of baseball history He was an average celebrity who was doing great things. And he kept on hitting homeruns such that we had to eventually take notice.

And then in 1975 he did it. He belted a ball off of Al Downing and then had stupid kids follow him around the diamond in what should have been a more dignified trot around the bases. And even all of us who didn’t want to see this knew that a new home run king was anointed. Babe was dead – and he was, anyway. Hammering’ Hank was the new king.

I write this as the apparent successor Barry Bonds is one home run away from tying Hank.

I will say this now and many times. Barry Bonds is a cheat, a liar, a drug user, a steroid freak and an abomination to major league baseball. And yet he is allowed to chase one of America’s most hallowed benchmarks – the home run title – and I wonder where is the outrage? Where is the disgust? Why isn’t America rioting against this?

Baseball is America. Why is it allowing a proven cheat to trot around the same bases as Hank and Babe did to get a cheated glory?

Shame. Shame. Shame.


Anonymous said...

Bond's funny numbers will do little to undermine Hammering Hank's greatness.

How right you are, Mr. Rock.

Hank broke Ruth's record in comparative obscurity. Networks didn't break in for his every at-bat after 714.

Hank hit most of his 755 becoming a man in the face of great oppression and odds. Barry hasn't even grown out of his childish "whining and complaining" stage.

I love what Tom Verducci wrote in SI:

Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, who also played with Aaron, recently began a conversation about the home run record with a disclaimer, apropos of the times: "I don't really want to talk about Bonds at all." But Uecker said it was important to recognize that Aaron's generation of hitters faced more duress than the current one.

"I think you're talking about a whole different scenario with players back then knowing knockdown pitches were as common as guys taking batting practice," he explained. "Throwing at people's heads was part of the game. Somebody hit a home run? The next guy coming up was going down. Hitters today don't have to worry about guys throwing at them all the time. And they still wear armor like policemen wear."

But 755 is, even by Aaron's estimation, an incomplete measure of the ballplayer and the man. Aaron said in his autobiography that he regarded the total bases record as more representative of "what I was all about as a hitter. . . . It also tells me something that the record had been [Stan] Musial's, because I consider myself to be much more like Musial than Ruth, both as a hitter and as a person."

Even more monumental than what Aaron accomplished is what he endured. In 1953, at age 19, only one year removed from hitting cross-handed for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro leagues, he was one of five players thrust into the integration of the Class A South Atlantic League, in the heart of Dixie. (The major leagues, which Robinson had integrated six years earlier, still played no farther south than St. Louis and Cincinnati.) Aaron could not eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same hotels or drink from the same fountains as his white teammates. Fans heaped racially charged insults at the teenager. A white teammate, Joe Andrews, bat in hand, would escort him out of the ballpark after games. And lo, Aaron hit .362 and was named the league's MVP.

Two decades later, as he chased and ultimately passed Ruth, Aaron received thousands of racially charged hate letters. There were threats on his life, and an Atlanta policeman, Calvin Wardlaw, was assigned to provide him with round-the-clock protection, keeping a snub-nosed .45 handgun in a binocular case. Aaron refused to ride in convertibles for fear of his own safety, a precautionary habit he has kept to this day. Though Aaron drew large, supportive crowds on the road, he often was ignored at home. When he hit home run number 711, for instance, there were only 1,362 people at Fulton County Stadium, a record low for the franchise. Many who did come to the ballpark in those years heckled him. There was real fear that it might have been much worse.

Hank Aaron is great.
Barry Bonds is not.

There will be no mistake about that in the history books, either.

wordgirl said...

Hank has already said that he won't be there to honor Bonds if and when he hits that magic number. In our house? Bonds is dead to us. He took a fabulous sport like baseball (with real heroes) and turned it on its head. Hank (and Jackie Robinson) did it the old fashioned way...with natural talent. Bonds takes steroids and demands the same kind of respect. He shouldn't get it. I hope he's "booed" right off the stage. Welcome back to the blogosphere!