Sunday, June 17, 2007

Thoughts on "Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America"

In anticipation of Barry Bonds eventually eclipsing Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, I recently read Tom Stanton's "Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America". Having watched most of Bonds' career, but not being alive to see Aaron's, I wanted to be able to compare the two quests, and come to my own conclusion as to whether Bonds' surly behavior is just "Bonds being Bonds" or a defensive reaction to the pressures he faces as he nears one of baseball's most hallowed records. I also wanted to learn about the pressure Aaron felt as he approached the Babe. Would he have acted as Bonds does today?

Below are several notes I took and some elaboration on certain segments of the book. Note some of the interesting parallels.

Page 68 - Stanton describes the negative correspondence Hank Aaron received as he neared Ruth's record. Among the interesting reactions Stanton uses is a Jim Murray quote from the Los Angeles Times. Murray, in an attempt to add humor to the situation, wrote that he wouldn't write a nasty letter to Hank Aaron - instead, he is saving his letter for a "kid hitting stones with a barrel stave somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama or Texas or California" who will "one day hit 750 home runs and topple" Hank Aaron.

Although I doubt he ever used a barrel stave to hit a stone, in 1974, nine-year old Barry Bonds did in fact live in California. It is doubtful that Bonds will receive his letter from Murray however, as the esteemed LA Times columnist passed away in 1998.

Page 102 - As was the times, there was quite a bit of racial tension in Aaron's pursuit of Ruth. Through this adversity, Stanton often compares Aaron to his idol, Jackie Robinson. On page 102, Stanton quotes Aaron summarizing the additional pressure race had on his athletic achievement. "I think every black person is prepared to deal with pressure because they are born under adversity, and they live under pressure every day of their lives," Aaron said. "They know damn well that they've got to go out and do better than the average person in order to keep their job."

In February 2005, Bonds said something very similar. In addressing his own pursuit of the Babe, Bonds said, "I'm black. Blacks, we go through a little more. ... I'm not a racist though, but I live in the real world. I'm fine with that." Either Bonds purposefully channeled Aaron as to deflect any steroid-related pressure (which I find very unlikely) or without a doubt race is still a factor. Perhaps Bonds too is receiving racist hate mail. Imagine that, a black man receiving racist hate mail for breaking a record held by another black man. I wonder if any reporters have bothered asking Bonds about his mail, or are they so enamored with their steroid witch hunt?

Page 122 - Stanton writes in depth about then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and his willful absence as Hammerin' Hank became the second player in baseball history to hit 700 home runs. Although Kuhn tried to play the incident off, he did attend when Aaron tied Ruth's record.

In my opinion, Bud Selig should "man-up" and honor Bonds for his achievements. Let history and the law judge Bonds when they get around to it. Events like this happen once in a lifetime. Selig shouldn't become more of a story than he already is in the Bonds saga. As Kuhn is quoted as saying, "I want to lead the baseball celebration when (Aaron) hits 714 and 715". Selig should say the same about Bonds' 756th.

Page 142 - According to Stanton, Aaron's 708th home run ball was sold immediately after it was hit for a whopping total of $70. Compare that to the millions Bonds' home run balls fetch on the market. Inflation is out of control.

Page 145 - On September 17th, 1973, 1,362 fans attended Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch Hank Aaron as he neared Ruth. Stanton describes the outrage from much of the sports media at Atlanta fans for "not caring enough" to see Aaron's chase for the record.

If you took every home run ball hit by Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth and handed one of each to each of the 1,362 fans, you would still have over 100 baseballs left over. That's pathetic. And I honestly thought the general malaise of Atlanta fans was due to the 90's Braves making the playoffs on an almost routine basis.

Page 194 - In discussing Bowie Kuhn's 1974 early-season edict that Aaron must play away games and cannot be held on the bench until the Braves returned to Atlanta, Stanton mentions the input of Dick Young, a famous (nee infamous) New York Daily News columnist. During the Aaron-Young feud, Young sided with Kuhn, stating the Braves were destroying the integrity of the game by not playing their star outfielder on the road.

Personally, I never read a column of Dick Young. He was before my time. That said however, he is probably my least favorite sports columnist of all-time. First, as mentioned, was his opinion on the Hank Aaron-Bowie Kuhn feud, and his blatant support of Kuhn, then, in 1977, Young was responsible for the darkest day in Mets' history - the day they traded Tom Seaver. I don't care if in the 70s Young also ghostwrote every Cheech and Chong movie and penned the lyrics to Led Zeppelin's entire catalog, in my opinion, he was a schmuck.

In conclusion, as I stated in the introduction, I really enjoyed "Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America". Highly recommended.

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