It’s hard to imagine what Hank Aaron went through as he tried to break Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball record of 714 home runs. We’ve all heard the stories of the racial slurs and death threats that took place 40 years ago as Aaron ultimately passed “The Bambino” to own what, at least until a bunch of steroid freaks started hitting home runs by the dozens, was probably considered the most revered record in American sports.
It was bad enough he was looking to dethrone the biggest sports icon in the country’s history, but Aaron was doing so as a black man in a South that had just desegregated a few years before and still carried open wounds from it.
Even Roger Maris, a white guy, had caught his share of grief not long before as he sought to knock off Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60. It’s well documented that Aaron’s “share of grief” was far more nasty and spiteful.
So maybe it’s not all that surprising to hear what Hammerin’ Hank had to say last week at a ceremony commemorating his most memorable accomplishment. Somehow talk turned from home runs to politics and Mobile’s most famous son who doesn’t sing about sailing and drinking launched into a diatribe during which he essentially called Republicans in Congress klansmen. Aaron explained why he still keeps hate letters from four decades ago.
“To remind myself,” Aaron told USA TODAY Sports, “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Needless to say Aaron’s comments offended many Americans, Republicans and otherwise. It also offended Klansmen once someone helped them sound out the words so they could read his quotes. Let’s just say they might not want to have this quote carved into the side of Hank Aaron Stadium.
I, like many, Mobilians wasn’t offended as much as I was saddened to hear that kind of thing come out of Hank’s mouth. I wasn’t born in Mobile, but I’ve lived most of my adult life here and have come to be proud the True Home Run King is from my city. (I refuse to recognize any of the roid rage records held by Sosa, McGuire and Bonds. Anyone with a 46-inch neck should be wiped out of the record books.)
Hank has always seemed like a pretty classy guy, but as he’s gotten older he’s gotten a bit more outspoken about his political beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that until you start calling people klansmen.
But in reality it’s hard to get too worked up about what he said because it’s just so over the top. I imagine if you gave Hank a choice between playing a game in front of a stadium full of actual sheet-wearing, rotten-toothed, sister-kissing, klansmen and a stadium full of perfectly coiffed Republican Congressmen in their starched shirts, it would be easy to guess which he’d pick.
Obviously, disagreeing with President Obama’s agenda doesn’t automatically make someone a racist, any more than agreeing with it automatically makes someone a communist. Besides, if someone is a member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — we already know they’re likely suffering from moderate-to-severe brain damage anyway. Piling on more insults is just uncalled for.
So in this city where we have the Henry Aaron Loop encircling our downtown and Hank Aaron Stadium for our minor league baseball team, and Hank’s childhood home enshrined there as a museum, what are we to think about our hometown hero making such statements? For the most part I think we just shrug it off. Hank’s 80 years old and he’s accomplished a lot and been through a lot.
He’s lived a public life for a long time and for the most part hasn’t made a horse’s rear out of himself too often. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially these days when you’re even probably being recorded in the men’s room at your neighborhood McDonald’s.
It’s also pretty obvious Hank still has a lot of pain from his time trying to best the Babe. Here’s more of what he said that day: “I don’t think about it that much, just because of the pain. I think about other things. There were other things in my life that I enjoyed more than chasing the record.
“I was being thrown to the wolves. Even though I did something great, nobody wanted to be a part of it. I was so isolated. I couldn’t share it. For many years, even after Jackie Robinson, baseball was so segregated, really. You just didn’t expect us to have a chance to do anything. Baseball was meant for the lily-white. Now, here’s a record that nobody thought would be broken, and, all of a sudden, who breaks it but a black person.”
And now a bunch of morons used Hank’s comments as an opportunity to write more hateful and — surprise — racist letters he can add to the pile. No wonder he can’t move on.
If Hank can’t focus on what he accomplished, then maybe that’s our job as Mobilians. One day he’ll be gone and a couple of dumb statements will wash away. What will stand — for some time it seems — is his home run record. If anything it was made greater by what he endured and he’s ultimately greater for having gone through it and persevering.
The greatest way to show Hank things have indeed changed is grant him this one bad at bat without holding it against him.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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