Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 24, 2021

Hank Aaron’s Immeasurable Greatness

It is true that early forms of the Great Game were being played by the time Charles Dickens published the first installment of the original, serialized version of “A Tale of Two Cities” in the spring of 1859. But while the release of what would become Dickens’ most famous work of historical fiction did coincide with what is now the time for Opening Day, there is no evidence that the preeminent novelist of the Victorian Age was thinking of baseball when he penned the novel’s opening sentence, and absent some unknown capacity for time travel, Dickens could not possibly have known of events that transpired more than eleven decades later.

Yet as we look back from the clarifying distance of almost a half century at Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs through the long days and nights of the 1973 season, and on to its culmination early in the 1974 campaign, the famous Dickens dichotomy immediately comes to mind. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Of course, we prefer our history told in soft sepia tones, so as the years have rolled by the guiding reference has always been the moment that capped Aaron’s long chase of a record that had stood since May 25, 1935. On that date, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a stadium that had been reduced to rubble by the time Aaron approached Ruth’s mark, the Babe collected four hits in as many trips to the plate. Three of them left the park, with the last being the 714th home run of Ruth’s career.

Like Ruth himself, the record was larger than life, a mark long thought to be untouchable. But then few ballplayers of any generation could match the consistent hitting prowess of Henry Louis Aaron. Starting with his fourth big league season in 1957, when he homered 44 times to lead the National League while winning MVP honors, he failed to hit at least 30 homers just twice over a span of 17 seasons. The last year of that string was 1973, when Aaron’s 40 round-trippers brought him to the very brink of Ruth’s record. But playing with a franchise based first in Milwaukee before it relocated to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron did not fully emerge into the national spotlight until it became apparent that he could become the new career home run king. Aaron’s final homer of the ’73 campaign came on the next to last day of the season. While Atlanta’s final game of the year brought great anticipation, when he went homerless fans around the country quickly began looking forward to 1974.

Atlanta opened on the road against the Reds that year, and Aaron tied Ruth’s mark in his first at-bat of the new season, before a packed house of more than 52,000 at Riverfront Stadium. Four days later, on April 8, Atlanta played its first home game of the year against the Dodgers. The moment is familiar, for we have seen it many times. Al Downing on the mound, Aaron waiting in the batter’s box. After a first pitch in the dirt, the left-handed Downing with his big leg kick, delivers a fastball that’s in the upper part of the strike zone. Aaron connects with that lightning-fast swing that seems to be just a flick of his wrists, and everyone in the park knows the ball is gone. It sails to deep left, even as L.A.’s outfielders give chase. But they have no chance. The ball flies over the 385-foot sign on the left field fence into the Atlanta bullpen, and the roars cascade down as Aaron rounds the bases. Between second and third base two fans who have raced onto the field approach him, and Aaron must shrug them off so he can continue his trot. Waiting at home plate are his Atlanta teammates, and his parents.

It is one of the Great Game’s eternal moments. But for every fan, and most deeply for Aaron, there was far more to it than the old film reveals. On the Dodgers broadcast that night, the incomparable Vin Scully hinted at it, saying, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

Yet as Aaron revealed in later years, whatever greatness there was on that April evening was tempered by the ugly reality of bigotry and prejudice. Born in Alabama, he had grown up in a time of rigid segregation and was the last Nego League player to move on to Major League Baseball. But nothing in his early years could have fully prepared him for the hatred and vitriol that came his away as his assault on Ruth’s mark neared its climax. The Atlanta franchise hired a fulltime secretary to handle the mail addressed to Aaron, more than 930,000 letters from every corner of the land. But not every missive could be described as fan mail. There were racist diatribes, crude name-calling, and death threats. In addition to the secretary, the ballclub hired two off-duty Atlanta policemen to sit in the outfield stands behind Aaron. His children had escorts on their way to school. Years later, Aaron wrote in his memoir, “I didn’t expect the fans to give me a standing ovation every time I stepped on the field, but I thought a few of them might come over to my side as I approached Ruth. At the very least, I felt I had earned the right to not be verbally abused and racially ravaged in my home ballpark.” Once Aaron was asked if the racist hatred directed at him had been a source of motivation. He replied that it just made him sad.

Perhaps he needed no extra motivation. When he retired Aaron held not just the career home run mark, but, among many others, records for RBIs and total bases that still stand more than forty years later. He had 3,771 hits, so had he never smashed a single home run he would still be a member of the 3,000-hit club. All accomplished with quiet grace both on and off the field, while enduring hatred and contempt for no reason but the color of his skin. Which is to say, for no reason at all.

The best of times. The worst of times. The season of life. The season of darkness. Amidst the cheers and the jeers, Henry Aaron rose above both the adulation and the death threats. He was so much more than just a great ballplayer. He was an American hero.

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