I was a kid in 1974, and not particularly attached to baseball. Yet I felt the buzz as Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron approached the all-time home run record.
Aaron was approaching a record set four decades earlier by Babe Ruth. He accomplished this (I read today) by being the singly most consistently great player in baseball history. This is something that can only be accomplished by a talented athlete who never takes a day off, mentally or physically, for decades.
In 1974, there were a lot of other things I didn’t know. My recollection of the game is vague, except for the part where Hank went long. While I watched the TV to see if this would be the at-bat that made him a legend (not even really understanding what that meant, but I was caught up in the spectacle), I did not know that Hank Aaron was receiving death threats every day. A lot of people were threatening to kill him if he, a Black man, were to break Ruth’s record.
When Aaron’s team relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta, he wasn’t too stoked. He had played minor league ball in the South, and the fans had not been pleasant. But his team moved, and so did he, and he quietly became a voice of racial justice in Georgia.
But (I read today), rather than being filled with anticipation at breaking a legendary record, Aaron was living in hell, and just wanted that final home run that put an end to the conflict, one way or another. That angers me, that such an accomplishment would only be a source of catharsis, rather than joy. That the last part of the climb to that summit would be tainted by fear of something not natural but simply evil.
Aaron broke the record set by a man who played in a league that excluded black players. Imagine what might have become of Ruth’s numbers if he had had to face Satchel Paige occasionally, or any of a number of powerful pitchers and fielders relegated to the Negro Leagues.
Aaron’s record was eventually broken by the bioscience industry, with Barry Bonds as its representative.
Neither of those two were dealing with thousands of hostile letters every week. Neither of those were just wanting to get this whole thing behind them.
Hammerin’ Hank, you’re still my hero. You’re still the home run king.