At presstime, a longstanding major league baseball record stands poised to be broken. It is surrounded by dark clouds of controversy, as a player with direct ties to the abuse of steroids and other banned substances (whose name I refuse to mention), revered by some, despised by a majority, will soon be loudly celebrated by his ESPN shills and apologists (as well as a limited number of fans in the San Francisco area) for becoming the all-time home run champion.
But the man who hit 755 has gained new respect and reverence by a public who appreciates sportsmanship and simply being a gentleman over boorish behavior by physically talented but morally bankrupt egomaniacs who unfortunately are prominent in modern-day athletics.
We Baby Boomers who were baseball fans will never forget the night Hank hit number 715 in Atlanta. Most of the rest of us remember it, too, as the event transcended sport. Nobody ever thought Babe Ruth’s record would be broken, particularly by a humble, unassuming man who hit line drives that would frequently barely clear the wall, and whose highest single year home run total was a mere 47.
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. Being a denizen of the Deep South would prove advantageous to a man who entered major league baseball in 1954, only seven years after Jackie Robinson had integrated the sport. Racial epithets and threats hounded him for much of his career, with death threats regularly coming as he threatened to break Babe Ruth’s mark.
Aaron hit the first of 755 dingers against Cardinal Vic Raschi on April 23, 1954. Aaron was a natural with a sweet line drive swing who seemed bound for hitting greatness. He hit home runs, but not towering Mantelesque shots. In 1954, it would have seemed a long stretch of the imagination to picture him someday being baseball’s all-time home run champion.
Instead, such a swing might have produced 3,000 hits, or perhaps have led in the all-time extra base record, too. His athletic stride might have netted him an all-time 76% stolen base percentage, as well. And, as a matter of fact, all the previous predictions would come true. But all-time home run champion? Fuggedaboutit.
Well, the home runs kept steadily piling up. In 1970, Hank hit #600, joining an elite club whose members comprised the Babe, Willie Mays, and now, Mr. Aaron. Hank’s steady home run numbers (up to that point, excluding his short rookie season, he had had no fewer than 24 home runs in a season) could well lead him to breaking baseball’s biggest record.
In 1971, he hit his high of 47. The next year, he passed Willie Mays to become #2. The buzz began in earnest, as a solid majority of the nation got behind Hank in his quest. Sadly and ironically, his home crowd in Atlanta didn’t seem to care too much. Apathy was shown with mediocre crowds, a few stupid racists always being among the meager numbers.
The aforementioned cowardly idiots tried to intimidate him with their racially-inspired threats. Hank grew up with that crap. He handled it.
As the 1973 season drew to a close, Hank was tantalizingly close. But when the season was over, he was one behind Ruth.
The Braves began the season on the road in 1974, and Hank tied Babe’s record in Cincinnati. When he got back home for Atlanta’s first series against the Dodgers, Al Downing tossed him a high fastball in the fourth inning, and suddenly, baseball had a new home run king. Appropriately enough, the line drive barely cleared the fence.
Hank’s non-loony detractors pointed out that Ruth had shorter seasons in which to set his record. But his supporters pointed out that Ruth had never seen pitching like Hank did. That bit of controversy pales into instant insignificance when the next home run champ passes 755. Just wait and see what history has to say about him.
Very shortly, ESPN announcer Chris Berman will burst into tears of intense pleasure as his beloved object of affection passes Hank’s well-earned mark. Baseball, perhaps the most impotent sport of all when it comes to dealing with its cheaters, and the one most in fear of its players’ union, has done nothing to prevent steroid- and HGH-inflated home runs from being counted as legit. But true baseball fans know that there is only one true all-time home run champion, and the Boomers and older among them will never forget the night a true gentleman earned that title.