ESSAY- Hammerin' Hank: Bonds can never match Aaron
"When I was in the ballpark, I felt like I was surrounded by angels and I had God's hand on my shoulder." –Hank Aaron
When I was growing up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, baseball glowed. The players were like gods. Kids looked up to them and wanted to emulate them. They stood for honesty, hard work, and determination. We thought we could be like them because they didn't make whopping salaries and weren't millionaires. And they were respectful of the public and of their fans. Baseball was still a game.
Fast-forward a half century, and things have drastically changed. Baseball is scandal-ridden. Many of the players are arrogant. Some even ride to the ballpark in limos. And they make enough money to buy the stock market.
Simply put, corporate baseball is big business. Many of the players don't even have to work all that hard because they're pumped full of supplements and drugs. These are a few reasons why I can't get excited by Barry Bonds' assault on the career home-run record. To me, it's a sham– which brings me to Hank Aaron. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois. Occasionally, my dad and I would make the three hour drive to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play. One day, the Milwaukee Braves were playing the Cardinals. I was a Cardinals fan. But I left the park that day a Hank Aaron fan.
The most remarkable memory from that trip was not the game itself. It was the Braves' pre-game batting practice, where I watched Aaron and teammate Eddie Mathews smash one pitch after another over the fences. I had never seen ballplayers hit the ball so hard– and I haven't since. And that was before the baseball was energized.
Mathews was a great player, but age soon caught up with him– not, however, before he and Aaron combined to hit the most homers as teammates. And although Eddie slowed down, Hank kept smashing the baseball and went on to set numerous records. But no feat could match Aaron's historic assault on Babe Ruth's career home-run record of 714.
Who would have guessed that this shy kid from Alabama would change history– especially in light of the racial tensions of the day? In 1952, Hank quit high school to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. His talent was apparent to the baseball scouts, and after a brief stay as the Clowns' shortstop, Hank was sold to the Braves for $10,000. After excelling in the Braves' farm system for several years, Aaron joined the Braves in Milwaukee.
The year was 1954, and it didn't look like the 20-year-old Aaron would make the team. But then one of the starting outfielders broke an ankle, and Hank was tapped to replace him. He never looked back. In 1955, he battled .314 with 27 homers and 106 RBIs. The next season, Hank won his first of two National League batting titles.
In 1957, Aaron hit a National League-leading 44 homers while driving in 132 RBIs and batting .322. And to cap off the season, he hit an 11th-inning homer late in the season to clinch the pennant for the Braves. Aaron won the MVP that year, and the Braves went on to win the World Series.
Year after year, Aaron proved his hitting and fielding prowess. And although he was six feet tall, he never exceeded 190 pounds. The key to Aaron's hitting was his supple, powerful wrists that allowed him to crack his bat like a buggy whip. He credits his amazing wrists to a job he had hauling ice as a 16-year-old– working from 6am to 1pm for $2.25 a day.
Despite his heroics, Aaron was not normally excitable. One observer said that Hank seemed to be looking for a place to sit down when he approached the batter's box. Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts once remarked that Aaron was the only batter he knew who "could fall asleep between pitches and still wake up in time to hit the next one."
Maybe it was Hank's laid-back style that allowed him to creep up on Babe Ruth's home-run record. But as the chase to beat Ruth heated up in the summer of 1973, so did the hate simmering beneath society's surface. Much of it came by way of the mailman: Aaron received an estimated 3,000 letters a day, more than any other American not in politics. Here's a sample:
Dear Nigger Henry,
You are (not) going to break the record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move.
As the mail rolled in, it was more hateful than Aaron could ever have imagined. "This," Aaron said later about the letters, "changed me." That summer ended with Hank at 713 homers– one shy of tying the Babe. He was 39 years old.
In his first at bat in 1974, Aaron homered– tying Ruth. Then on April 8, 1974, the largest crowd in Atlanta Braves history came out to witness the historic moment. Hank didn't disappoint. With a mean whip of the bat, his first swing of the evening, Aaron sent the ball into the Braves' bullpen in left center field– approximately 400 feet from home plate.
The large message board blared "715." Just like that, Hank Aaron had eclipsed the Great Bambino to become the home-run king.
When Aaron rounded third, he broke into a wide grin at the sight of his teammates waiting for him at the plate. With tears in his eyes, Aaron was met at home plate by his mother. Fireworks went off, and the crowd roared for ten minutes. "I just thank God it's all over," said Aaron. He had endured months in the fishbowl of media coverage, death threats, and hate mail.
Aaron played the entire game that night. Afterward, ever the model of professionalism and modesty, Aaron told reporters: "The home run wouldn't have meant that much to me if we hadn't won the game."
Aaron played several more years, amassing a career total of 755 homers– an amazing feat by an amazing man. Sadly, there are no Hank Aarons in the game today.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning DVD series Grasping for the Wind.