Forty years later, what Hank Aaron did still stands on the highest tier of the greatest accomplishments in sports history, but what he did also is bittersweet.
There was a sadness to it then.
There is a sadness to it still.
Aaron could not enjoy his all-time home run record when he earned it on this week in 1974, because his pursuit was a victim of the times. While he chased Babe Ruth’s iconic 714, racism and hatred chased him.
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Aaron still cannot enjoy being baseball’s Home Run King now, at age 80, because of course his record also was a victim of the times. While he set the mark naturally, retiring with a record 755 homers, the sport’s Steroids Era arrived to steal what was his.
Just to be sure, I checked MLB.com on Wednesday, navigated to all-time home run records and, sure enough, ‘BONDS, B.’ topped the list. No asterisk. Not the least hint that Barry Bonds finished with 762 the wrong way, wrapped in a scandal that has kept him out of Cooperstown but not out of Aaron’s spotlight.
I remember watching the TV replays of Aaron’s 715th homer that April 8. I was a teenager. What I remember most was those two fans who ran onto the field and up to Aaron as he circled the bases. I had no idea then that Aaron was momentarily terrified he was being attacked. I was young. I didn’t know any better. Didn’t appreciate the scope and size of that record, or the hurt that went into it.
The 40th anniversary slipped by this week. It was big news only in Atlanta, where the accomplishment of “Hammerin’ Hank” was marked before a Braves game.
This is what Aaron, using a walker following hip-replacement surgery, said this week about what should have been the happiest time of his professional life:
“I don’t think about it that much, just because of the pain. I was being thrown to the wolves. Even though I did something great, nobody wanted to be part of it. I was so isolated. I couldn’t share it. Baseball was meant for the lily-white. Now here’s a record that nobody thought would be broken, and all of a sudden, who breaks it but a black man.”
That is the recollection through Aaron’s prism, or should I say prison. His view is the only one that matters. He lived it. If he sounds bitter, that’s his right.
Jackie Robinson had happened 27 years earlier and the Civil Rights Act 10 years earlier, but society in 1974 was still changing at its own pace as society always does. Segregationists were hanging on. Aaron received death threats, heard the N-word called.
ESPN hadn’t happened yet and athlete endorsement money hadn’t begun to blow up, so Aaron would enjoy little of the attention or benefits that would flow to an athlete who set a comparable record today.
But at least he had the record! It was something they could never take away from him (as the modern athletes like to say), until, in effect, that is exactly what they did.
What is the worst of the indignities?
That Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s record was a feel-good story turned ugly by so many bigots who didn’t want a [racial slur] breaking a white icon’s record?
Or that Aaron would still own the record today if a juiced-up cheater hadn’t come along and used dirty hands to take it from him?
Nobody can change what society was 40 years ago.
Baseball, though, still has a chance to set the record straight.
At the anniversary ceremony honoring Aaron’s accomplishment, Braves chairman Terry McGuirk drew a roar from the crowd by noting Aaron “set the home run record the old-fashioned way.”
Commissioner Bud Selig, pressed this week to say whether he considered Aaron to be “the true home run king,” said, “I’m always in a sensitive spot there, but I’ve said that myself and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Well, the alternative to leaving it at that, Mr. Commissioner, would be to do something about it. The Steroids Era and Bonds’ dirty record bloomed on your watch. Why not try to set some of that right before you retire next year?
Baseball needs to reconcile its disconnect on how to regard the performance-enhancing drug guys. Hall of Fame voters hold the steroids guys in such disdain that players who would otherwise be first-ballot inductees, like Bonds, are barred from Cooperstown.
And voters have no problem meting out retroactive punishment by ostracizing even guys whose use of PEDs occurred before they were officially banned.
Yet MLB itself blindly acknowledges Bonds’ 762 and other tainted records, for all-time.
Perhaps a fair compromise is to not erase Bonds’ name from the record books as if he never existed, but rather to acknowledge that the most hallowed record in baseball — maybe in all of sports — would not be his without the aid of now-banned substances. (Similarly, I’d vote Bonds into the Hall if his plaque in Cooperstown would, for all time, mention steroids and the shame that had kept him out).
Speak the truth
I don’t think of this as a punishment of Bonds as much as I think of it as due respect to the true home run king, the one who didn’t need pharmaceuticals. Just a bat.
Nobody likes an asterisk in a record book, but one little asterisk in this case would say a lot, and it would speak this truth:
Henry Louis Aaron, a skinny kid from Mobile, barely 6-feet tall, maybe 180 pounds after a big meal, would hit a record 755 home runs in his major-league career.
And nobody using only their natural talent would ever hit more.