Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Baseball's Home Run King, Sans Posse

For me, Hank Aaron has always been a uniquely evocative story, illustrative of so many interesting themes large and small. Certainly his journey entails race. During his epic chase of icon Babe Ruth's career home run record in the mid-'70s, the quiet man was brutalized in a way that made it clear for anyone who doubted it that America still suffered from a crippling racial divide. Baseball's then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn even skipped seeing the record-setting game, leaving an indelible stain on his reputation. On a more serious note, the FBI field office racked up plenty of overtime screening his mail for a river of death threats and ugly racial epithets that poured in from hundreds of haters who couldn't abide Hammering Hank's presumtious gall to try to surpass an American icon. Records are made to be broken, but apparently not this one.

But on a less obvious but perhaps more interesting level, Aaron is also a story about Job-like endurance and the triumph of a blue-collar work ethic. Here was a guy who slowly and unspectacularly kept hitting lots of home runs year after year, silently stalking the louder legend of Ruth. And he did so while playing not in the country's media capital, like Ruth, but rather in the relative backwaters of Milwaukee and Atlanta, where there are rather fewer middle-aged hack sportswriters trying desperately to recapture their youth by writing endless elegies to their sports heroes. Hank didn't drink and didn't carouse. He was never very quotable about baseball, much less about larger social issues. He simply wanted to let his work speak for itself. And for some, it shouted.

All of which is why I only wish I could have been in Houston yesterday to witness an unprecedented scene: the 14 living men who have gained entry into the elite club of Major Leaguers who have hit at least 500 homers in their career (another six are dead) gathered together before the game to be honored. The names represent a who's who of the game's history. But Aaron was at the top of the glittering list.

But come to think of it, I would have rather been on hand to see an even more telling Aaron moment, which--befitting his style--unfolded with far less pomp and circumstance, in fact with none. The Washington Post reports that Hammering Hank unassumingly, with no entourage in sight, recently (the story is vague about when) dropped off his uniform to the Smithsonian. He simply strolled into the National Museum of American History carrying a garment bag, handed it over to a curator, and signed autographs for a few no doubt awe-struck fans who happened to recognize him. And then he was off. His lifelong rival Willie Mays was famously nicknamed the Say Hey kid. Hank has become the Say Not Much Man. But for me at least, his quiet demeanor is more eloquent than any American pastime poetry summoned by a thousand Brooklyn natives laboring to rediscover their personal Boys of Summer.


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