Baseball season is in full force and my Red Sox are struggling. But I continue to embrace baseball with the enthusiasm that I learned to nurture early in recovery. From my love of baseball, I have also acquired a number of heroes — men whom for various reasons I deeply admire. They have ranged from Red Schoendienst to Cool Papa Bell. The example of each of these men taught me valuable life lessons. Perhaps the best known of the men of baseball who have impacted my life is Henry Aaron.
Henry Aaron rose up from poverty in Mobile Alabama to become one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. He also endured incredible racism. The racism he experienced early in his career was unfortunately common. As one writer noted after he received an MVP award for his season with the Jacksonville Braves: “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”. Aaron had many painful memories form his early career. He recalled, for example, eating in a restaurant in Washington DC then hearing kitchen staff smash the plates after he and his fellow ballplayers had eaten.
But the worst experience of racism came later in his career. It became apparent in 1973 that Henry Aaron had a shot at breaking one of the most sacred of baseball records — Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714. As Aaron closed in on the record, he received much support but also received ugly racist taunts. Many included threats to his life and that of his family. The 1973 season ended with Aaron one homerun short of tying Ruth’s record.
Babe Ruth was perhaps the most popular baseball payer ever. And he was white. Aaron was not the first ballplayer to have the potential to surpass a beloved Ruth record. In 1961, Yankee Roger Maris approached breaking Ruth’s record of 60 homeruns in a season. Maris too received threats but not with the racist undertones faced by Aaron.
Yet Aaron conducted himself with quiet dignity and did not complain or expect special treatment. In the early 1974 season, he tied Ruth’s record. Then on April 8, he faced Al Downing of the Dodgers and broke Ruth’s record. The great sportscaster Vin Scully spoke to the significance of the moment:
“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 a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
I saw that moment on television and treasure the image of Henry Aaron circling the bases, shaking off two fans whom he feared might be attacking him. I also saw Henry Aaron in person years later when attending a ballgame of the Milwaukee Brewers, the team where Aaron finished his career. Robin Yount was being honored but in attendance was Henry Aaron!
Aaron reflected further class and dignity when Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s own career record. Aaron graciously congratulated Bonds without mention of the steroid issue that has clouded Bonds’ career and homerun record.
Henry Aaron stands as a towering example not only of tremendous athletic gifts but of dignity and courage in the face of ugly racism.
And, yes, I consider Henry Aaron to be the TRUE all-time homerun king! Enjoy the moment.