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03 April 2004 HANK AARON AND THE HOME RUN THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Tom Stanton, HarperCollins/William Morrow, March 2004, ISBN 0-06-057976-5


"But Aaron did have a response for those Babe Ruth defenders who needled him. If blacks had been allowed to play in Ruth's era, Aaron suggested, the home-run record might have belonged to Josh Gibson, a powerful catcher with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro leagues. 'Hell, a lot of those records would have been broken a long time ago,' he said. And if Ruth had been forced to face the best black pitchers, might he also have been deprived of a few of those 714 home runs?"


Twenty years ago, shortly before moving to California, I spent a winter on a farm in a small community near the Georgia-Florida border. At the beginning of 1984, during the months leading up to his win in the Florida primary, I commuted from that farm down to Tallahassee to work in Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart's campaign headquarters. That long, soggy winter in the rural Deep South gave this suburban Long Island native an up-close taste of the vestiges of what had previously been but a series of repugnant televised images and sound bytes that I recalled from my childhood.


A major chunk of my wife's curriculum for her eighth-grade English classes involves themes of race. Students read and discuss Mildred Taylor's THE LAND and Karen Hesse's WITNESS. Speeches of MLK, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are recited. Oral presentations about significant figures and landmark events of the Civil Rights era are researched and delivered.


To study the life and work of the now-elder statesman, Atlanta Congressman John Lewis,

http://richiespicks.com/users/stories/picks/john_lewis_from_freedom_rider_to_congressman.html is to begin understanding how bad things were in the Forties, the Fifties, and the Sixties, and how far we have come over the course of my lifetime. But, as I have repeatedly reminded Shari's students, the "difficulties" of race relations in the United States did not by any means end with the significant Civil Rights legislation of the mid 1960s. In fact, toward the end of the school year last spring, we found ourselves engaged in classroom discussions about a town south of Atlanta that was still holding segregated proms.


As a young man I met over that winter of '83-'84 earnestly explained to me when I challenged his frequently racist comments, "Y'all got smart niggers up there. Y'all just don't understand what it's like down here."


HANK AARON AND THE HOME RUN THAT CHANGED AMERICA provides some serious understanding of what it was like "down there" in the early 1970s for The Man--The BLACK Man--who had rounded third and was set on a collision course with the most revered record in American sports. Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs had stood tall, at the pinnacle of baseball history and mythology, since the larger-than-life Bambino had retired in 1935.


"Babe Ruth did not invent the home run. It just seemed as if he had. When Ruth debuted with Boston in 1914, Roger Conner reigned as champion, but it wasn't a vaunted throne. Connor, who retired before the Wright Brothers took flight, never led the National League in home runs. But over his eighteen-year career he accumulated 138 of them. The game was then, and in George Herman Ruth's early years, played in a slap-and-dash style. During the Dead Ball era, men like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins set the tone with their wild-on-the-bases, hit-for-high-average, speed-oriented play. It was an age in which a hitter, Frank Baker, could earn the nickname 'Home Run' by knocking out eleven or twelve balls in a year."


In 1934 as Babe Ruth was beginning preparations for his second to last season, Hank Aaron was being born.


"Henry had been born into the harshly segregated world of Mobile, Alabama, a port town where the last illicit slave ship docked...Across an ocean, the ominous rise of Adolf Hitler had begun to grip a nation and alarm a continent. But black Alabamans needed not look to foreign shores to see the face of evil. It flashed in their everyday lives, sometimes before the eyes of the whole country, as in the Scottsboro Case of nine black youths unjustly charged, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death for a rape they did not commit. It was into this world that Henry Aaron came, and to understand him, one must understand that."


"The whiz kids had won it,

Bobby Thomson had done it,

And Yogi read the comics all the while.

Rock 'n roll was being born,

Marijuana, we would scorn,

So down on the corner,

The national past-time went on trial."

--Terry Cashman, "Talkin' Baseball"


It was Bobby Thomson, cited in Cashman's song, and hitter of what was to that point the most famous individual home run in the history of the game, who inadvertently gave Hank Aaron his shot at the majors when Thomson broke an ankle. There was no looking back for Aaron who quickly took aim at the record books, got chosen annually for the All Star Game, and led the Braves to the 1957 World Series championship over the Yankees. While never a threat to challenge the Babe's single season home run mark, Aaron was the ultimate of consistent players who, by time he retired, had "played in more games, gotten more at-bats, knocked in more runs, collected more total bases, and hit more home runs--755--than any other player."


"OK, here we go, we got a real pressure cooker going here

Two down, nobody on, no score, bottom of the ninth

There's the wind-up, and there it is

A line shot up the middle, look at him go

This boy can really fly

He's rounding first and really turning it on now..."

--Phil Rizzuto rap on Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light"


But the greatest challenge of Aaron's career was his struggle to survive the waves of bitter hatred vented in his direction as he closed in on Ruth's mark.


"To his disappointment, he discovered that [his mail was] mostly negative. Six out of ten writers didn't want him to pass Babe Ruth...Amid the adoring proclamations of love decorated with red hearts and striped with magic markers and pasted with gold stars were the other kind. 'Dear Nigger,' they began. They came from across the country, from New York and Chicago and Atlanta. They were typewritten and handwritten and scrawled on postcards. They included sketches of Klan hoods and angry exclamation marks scratched fiercely into paper. At first, they accounted for just a trickle. Then they grew meaner and more frequent. Some suggested that Aaron simply quit or retire; others warned that he would die if he didn't...

" 'Martin Luther King was a troublemaker and had a short life span,' someone wrote.

" If you do not retire from the baseball scene,' said another, 'your family will inherit a great bit of trouble.'

"And, 'my gun is watching your every black move.' "


Tom Stanton presents anecdotes from Aaron's career, along with some colorful replays of baseball's past and future, including an amusing peek at an 8 year-old full-of-himself Barry Bonds, while returning again and again to the daily progression of the 1973 season when--as the mail and the pressure accelerated--Aaron inched closer and closer to Ruth's sacred record.


The author also provides us with of glimpses of Hank Aaron, the man, the mentor, the friend, and the father.


Hank Aaron might be remembered by some as a player who spoke softly while carrying a big stick. But Hank Aaron knew firsthand of inequality and racism. And what he often spoke about--softly but firmly, and long before it finally became a reality--was the need for black managers and black executives in major league baseball. That the author successfully illuminates this lesser-known legacy of Hank Aaron, while revealing the extent to which racism persisted in the 1970s, elevates the book well above any characterization as being merely a great sports biography. \


And when next year's eighth-graders are given the list of suggestions from which to choose a Civil Rights oral report topic, Hank Aaron will be on the list.


Play Ball!


Richie Partington




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