Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Leapfrogging the Babe

"A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all–time baseball idol. ... 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."

Vin Scully
Dodgers broadcaster

Jackie Robinson was long before my time.

I've heard stories about him. I've read books about him. I admire his accomplishments, and I would have to say that my generation's Jackie Robinson was Hank Aaron. They both broke barriers.

I guess few people realized it at first. When I was a child, it seemed that most people assumed Willie Mays would be the one to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. That was to be expected, I guess. Mays' major–league career began a couple of years before Aaron's, so Mays got off to an early statistical lead, but Aaron kept plodding along.

At some point, Aaron passed Mays. I don't know precisely when. But I do know that 40 years ago today, he passed the Babe, too.

Compared to some contemporary sports heroes, Aaron must seem hopelessly quaint. He never took steroids. He never resorted to bluster or bragging. In fact, my memory is that Aaron was very soft spoken. He let his accomplishments speak for themselves.

(Speaking of which, Aaron had a somewhat meager postseason record. He appeared in the World Series twice, winning it once, before he was 25. He also appeared in the National League Championship Series the first year that major league baseball was broken up into divisions. That was it.

(But he made the most of his opportunities, batting .362 and clubbing six home runs in 69 official postseason at–bats.)

I can only imagine the stress he must have been under in the offseason between the 1973 season and the 1974 season. You see, he came within one home run of tying the Babe's all–time mark in 1973, and he had to go through an entire offseason knowing that he only needed two more home runs to become the all–time home run king.

During those months, he was subjected to the most vile and hateful treatment imaginable. Threats were made against his life. Unsupported, slanderous rumors were spread about him and his family. At times, he must have wondered if it was worth it.

Jon Friedman writes in TIME that Aaron "got off easy" because he didn't have to contend with social media.

That's a debatable point, I think. It may not have been an as technologically advanced time, but, as Ben Nightengale writes in USA Today, "it was an often joyless and lonely pursuit" for Aaron.

Still, he persevered — in spite of the threats and the glare of the public spotlight.

And on April 4, in the first game of the season, Aaron hit a three–run homer off Jack Billingham at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, tying Ruth. In hindsight, it is easy to presume that he was impatient to get the record chase behind him, but he did nothing in his other three at–bats that day.

The Braves were forced by the commissioner to play Aaron once more in Cincinnati; he went three for four but didn't break Ruth's record so the home run chase returned to Atlanta.

In 1974, NBC ordinarily did not broadcast a baseball game on Monday nights until summer, when the rest of the networks' schedules were in reruns, but NBC made special arrangements to televise Aaron's first home game of the season — and, hopefully, history as well.

Everything played out perfectly.

It might not have. Aaron hit only 20 home runs all year — his lowest output since his rookie season 20 years earlier — and he could have gone a couple of weeks before he hit another one. But NBC was fortunate.

Al Downing was on the mound for the Dodgers. The Braves trailed, 3–1, when Aaron came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Third baseman Darrell Evans was on first following an error by Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell. Aaron drilled his record–setting home run and ignited a four–run inning that gave the Braves the lead — and, eventually, the win.

Aaron's parents came out to greet him at home plate as he rounded the bases. His mother held tightly to her son and refused, for the longest time, to let go. I heard later that she was afraid he would be shot; there had been threats made that he would be shot at home plate if he broke Ruth's record.

He wasn't shot, of course, but I don't think he got off easy.

It should be a much more relaxed atmosphere for Aaron at Turner Field tonight, though. A ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of his record–setting home run is planned before the start of the game. The first 45,000 fans will receive commemorative posters, and "[e]very 40th person to check–in will receive a $40 Racetrac giftcard."

And Aaron will be applauded and cheered by all tonight.

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