You’ve heard of Babe Ruth. If he’s not the best known American athlete of the last century, he’s in the top five. He was more beloved – by Americans of all stripes – than probably anyone. Ruth loved the fans, and the fans loved him back.
In 1961, when fellow Yankee Roger Maris – a nice, humble guy – was approaching Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, he became so stressed his hair started falling out.
When Hank Aaron started approaching Ruth’s career home run record, he had it worse, for two very simple reasons: 714 home runs was the record in baseball that even the casual fan knew. And second, unlike Maris, Aaron is black. Of course, that shouldn’t matter in the least – but it mattered a lot in 1974.
Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, one of seven children. They say his wrists were strong from picking cotton, and also his unusual practice of swinging “cross-handed” – that is, holding the bat with his left hand on top, instead of his right, a habit he didn’t break until the minor leagues.
Aaron made it to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, one of the first African-Americans to play major league baseball. According to Daniel Okrent, a best-selling author who invented fantasy baseball, this was baseball’s richest decade for talent, because every kid grew up playing baseball – not soccer – and, finally, everybody was allowed to play.
The decade featured legends like Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Often overlooked was Hank Aaron – and he was just fine with that. He was a complete player, hitting for average and power, and winning three gold gloves for fielding.
He hit his home runs, but never in record numbers. When 50 homers a year was still the gold standard for excellence, the closest he came was 47. But he hit more than 30 home runs in a season 15 times – a record that still stands, even though no one seems to know about it.
After the Braves moved to Atlanta, and Aaron finished the 1973 season just one homer away from Ruth’s all-time mark, there was no place to hide.
Aaron was no stranger to racism, of course, but what he faced during that long off-season was stunning – and downright scary. The death threats were so frequent, and often credible, Aaron feared he would not make it to opening day in 1974. He wasn’t being paranoid: Lewis Grizzard, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports editor, quietly had an obituary written for Aaron just in case the worst occurred.
Aaron knocked the first pitch he received out of the park in 1974, to tie Ruth’s 714 home runs. Days later, on April 8, 1974, he smashed one over the fence in Atlanta to break the record, once and for all. Aaron rounded the bases with his trademark poker face, probably less exultant than relieved it was finally all over.
As a nine-year-old kid, I was blissfully unaware of everything Aaron had to overcome to achieve that mark. The next day in school, I battled my old friend Matt Colon for the right to announce the news at show and tell – and won, something I obviously remember to this day.
Aaron finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, the new American League team, doing his work far from the spotlight, the way he liked it.
When Barry Bonds approached his all-time record of 755 home runs, many fans were troubled, but for a different reason: Just about everyone suspects Bonds of using steroids, which would help explain why he jumped from hitting 16 home runs a year to over 70, and why his hat size increased from 7 ¼ to 7 3/8, and why his personal trainer served time in prison instead of taking the stand.
Nonetheless, the toothless people who run baseball did nothing to stop Bonds, who broke Aaron’s record in 2007.
Aaron once again proved his class, congratulating Bonds on the Jumbotron. He also proved his quiet dignity, too, doing so from afar rather than in person.
Despite setting one of the biggest records in sports, Aaron is not one of the biggest names in sports – probably not in the top ten, or 20. He’s just one of the most impressive.