Henry Aaron is gone, but his image can’t be allowed to die with him. It’s all baseball has left, really, memories of the sport’s most prosperous times back when a home run meant something and a slugger didn’t need a syringe to be king. He fought the most despicable attacks of racism with grace, embracing defiance more than bitterness, and if the so-called current commissioner had any nerve, he’d officially declare Aaron’s 755 homers as the all-time record.
But Rob Manfred, who only has exacerbated an ongoing crisis of cultural irrelevance and labor warfare, wouldn’t dare do the right thing and affix a big, bloated asterisk to Barry Bonds’ steroids-enhanced 762. Instead, he will allow a swell of Aaron tributes to be swallowed by a repulsive possibility Tuesday: Bonds receiving just enough votes for Hall of Fame induction.
Upon which, as always, the real king will be slighted again.
Which would be a sin, because if baseball had an iconic logo, The Hammer would be the one swinging the bat in the likeness. He represented integrity, dignity and all-around mastery in a sport that since has degenerated into scandal and deceit, from steroids and recreational drug use to gambling and electronic sign-stealing. It’s not a stretch to say baseball began its slow, agonizing plunge in American life on April 8, 1974, the night Aaron blasted No. 715 in Atlanta and passed Babe Ruth. That should be remembered forever as one of the top-five glorious moments in sports history. As Vin Scully waxed on the broadcast, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
Yet almost five decades later, the evening is more symbolic of how this country refused to learn from the hatred that accompanied his chase. “If I was white, all America would be proud of me. But I am Black,” Aaron said then. “They call me `nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for Black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”
He realized the bigger hero in White America was Mickey Mantle, beloved as a folk hero despite human failings. Aaron was the far more exemplary figure, surviving poverty in the Jim Crow South to achieve stardom, with Willie Mays, in the years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. But as he approached the hallowed record of Ruth, another man far from perfect, Aaron was subjected to racist letters that threatened his life and soured him on his accomplishments. To his dying day, the wounds remained. “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Aaron told the New York Times. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
He refused to let them have the entire heart. Only weeks before he died in his sleep at age 86, he was setting an example of how to persevere and stand tall. Who was among the first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine? Henry Aaron, who knew the greater African-American community is reluctant to be vaccinated and wanted to make a statement about the benefits of inoculation. “I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
Just as America continues to be torn by racism, baseball has been crippled by relentless cheating and self-destruction. The ‘80s were disgraced by Pete Rose’s gambling habits and the Pittsburgh drug trials. The ’90’s brought a labor impasse that wiped out a World Series and allowed football and Michael Jordan to usurp Major League Baseball in mass popularity. A new century cast light on rampant PED usage that made a mockery of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who had returned the sport to the mainstream, and the unrepentant likes of Bonds. Of late, the Houston Astros stole signs and banged on trash cans to alert hitters of oncoming pitches, part of a wide-ranging scheme that should have nailed more teams. Perhaps the best proof of Aaron’s regal status is how media outlets approached him for comments.
“I think whoever did that, they should be out of baseball for the rest of their lives,” he said of the Astros while appearing on NBC’s “Today.”
And Rose? “I just think it’s hogwash to say that he should be put back into the game just because the public wants it,” Aaron told ESPN. “A rule is a rule, and the rule is on every clubhouse door that you can’t bet on baseball. It doesn’t say that you’re excluded if you have 4,000 hits or 700 home runs.”
All you need to know about baseball and its recklessly lost trust is this: The all-time hits leader, Rose, is banned from the sport; and the all-time home run leader, Bonds, remains a borderline Hall candidate much like Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest starting pitcher ever. Each made dubious history after Aaron’s No. 715, and other than Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive game streak, no baseball moment since 1974 has made legitimate transcendent impact.
So baseball had better try its damndest to clutch Aaron’s legacy and not let go. “With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people,” President Joe Biden said. “But he was unbreakable.”
Said former President Barack Obama: “Humble and hardworking, Hank was often overlooked until he started chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, at which point he began receiving death threats and racist letters — letters he would reread decades later to remind himself `not to be surprised or hurt.’ Those letters changed Hank, but they didn’t stop him.”
Another former President, Donald Trump, has yet to comment. But Bonds did — when saying nothing would have been the more respectful play. “I was lucky enough to spend time with Hank on several occasions during my career and have always had the deepest respect and admiration for all that he did both on and off the field. He is an icon, a legend and a true hero to so many, who will forever be missed,” Bonds wrote on Instagram. “Hank Aaron — thank you for everything you ever taught us, for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ball players who came after you. Being able to grow up and have the idols and role models I did, helped shape me for a future I could have never dreamed of. Hank’s passing will be felt by all of us who love the game and his impact will forever be cemented in my heart.”
In the cruelest twist, it was the man who admired Aaron most who enabled Bonds to supplant him atop the career home-run chart. As a fan in Milwaukee, Bud Selig was in awe of The Hammer when he played for the Braves and, after buying the Brewers, brought Aaron back to town for his final two seasons. But when he ascended to the baseball commissionership in the ‘90s, Selig was complicit in not cleaning up the steroids scandals that ultimately allowed Bonds to one-up Aaron.
“Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C, together and talking about how we’ve been the best of friends for more than 60 years,” Selig told the Associated Press. “Then Hank said, `Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a Black kid from Mobile, Alabama, would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the commissioner of baseball?’”
If the kid from Milwaukee had done his job responsibly, he would have banned Bonds long enough that he couldn’t have broken the real home run record. But that’s the story of Henry Aaron’s life: When so much was right, even a friend did him wrong. MLB can rectify the error by celebrating The Hammer as a regular rite, beginning Tuesday, on what could be one of the sport’s darkest days.