Forty-six years ago last night, Hank Aaron turned on an Al Downing fastball and stepped into the record books. At the athletically geriatric age of forty, he hit his 715th home run, moving past Babe Ruth, becoming baseball’s career home run leader. I remember it vividly. I had been a fan of the sport since 1970, but that was the first time I sat down to see a ball game with the specific hope of watching history unfold. It was a school night (Monday), so I didn’t stay up to see the end of the game, but I’d gotten what I hoped for. And for a little while that was, relative to my interest in and expertise concerning Mr. Aaron, it. I knew that he’d done a great thing and had a non-specific understanding that he’d been a great player, but I had absolutely no deeper appreciation of how much he’d accomplished. Then I read a biography of his and, in it’s own way, it has stayed with me ever since.
Hammerin’ Hank of the Braves, by Joel Cohen, was published in 1971. I don’t recall whether I found it in the school library or if I’d actually been able to lobby successfully for it’s purchase by my mother, but some time during the 1974 season I made my way through it. It was the first life story I’d ever read about an athlete. It was definitely a kids book, but it had his statistics printed in the back and I was just learning to look at those kinds of numbers and see them in historical context. If Aaron had chosen to retire after the 1973 season and had missed the home run record, his accomplishments would still have been monumental. Having led the National League thirty-one times over eight different categories, as well as winning three Gold Gloves, he was an extraordinary ball player regardless of whether or not he finished as a record holder in any way. As I got older, my interest in the sport grew from childhood fascination to a studied reverence. Somewhere in all that obsession I began to look at his career with a fuller understanding of what he really was. Aside from the preceding list of superlatives it seemed as if Hank had completed every year with a top five finish in a half dozen statistical achievements. In seeing all that I’d learned an important lesson: the greatness of a person is not always (or even often) best summed up in a signature moment.
Over the years I’ve lost track of how many times I began a conversation with someone on the merits of the lesser known highlights of an elite performer’s curriculum vitae. The B-sides of the A list, if you will. Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals? Amazing, but the real scope of his talent is more accurately conveyed by the American records he set in a variety of events (100 meter backstroke, 400 meter freestyle, 200 yard individual medley) that even most competitive swimmers aren’t aware of. The Godfather is an unquestionable masterwork but if your trying to find the pinnacle of Francis Ford Coppola’s oeuvre you really can’t have a meaningful discussion till you’ve seen The Conversation, a less well remembered piece of cinematic perfection in which Gene Hackman, in front of the lens, and Coppola behind it execute a clinic in the art of filmmaking. This tendency towards the iconoclastic has, more often than not, served me well at the level of casual conversation. Aside from the momentary salve to my fragile ego that holding an unusual opinion occasionally provides, it seems that taking that sort of stance lets others feel more comfortable when responding in kind. It’s been a real pleasure to listen to other people’s atypical perspectives and grasp of arcana on a broad swath of subjects ranging from Ennio Morricone’s virtues as a composer to the societal benefits of classical liberalism. Not that offering a dissenting thought always results in a episode of social delight. More than thirty-five years later I can still recall needing more than twenty minutes to calm down an agitated drunk at a neighborhood bar in Brooklyn who took an odd level of offense with me for letting him know that Bruce Springsteen had not actually written “Jersey Girl”. I was young and stupid enough to think that defending the talents of Tom Waits (the song’s writer) was a valid reason to risk spending the remainder of the evening cooling my heels in an emergency room. I’m past that now, although I recognize that if things had gotten out of hand, as long as I’d remained neurologically intact, there’s no question that the story would be on my greatest hits list. Still, the upside has far outweighed the down, in my experience.
Being able to get to know some one or thing at a second level has become a source of entertainment for me in the time that has elapsed since I first found out that Mr. Aaron was so much more than “just” the home run king. Aside from the enhanced social exchanges, this almost reflexive need to look deeper has, on occasion, allowed me to see a fuller picture of the person who’s life I’m investigating. How fitting that Aaron’s life story off the field provided me the opportunity to appreciate what he was as a man, too.
Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934 he was subjected to the ugly racism of that setting and lived through much of it again via an avalanche of utterly vicious mail during his pursuit of Ruth’s record. It would not have been remotely surprising for him to have been permanently embittered by the unimaginable stress he was under. Certainly he’s candid about how hard it was on him. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the staggering level of vitriol he was subjected to. To his credit he’s just as content to reflect on the thousands of letters of support he received from white fans as he chased immortality. None of that is a secret. It has been part of what I think about whenever I see him on television, or read about him, and it is as big a part of my admiration for him as the plethora of athletic exploits I’ve already recounted.
Which makes my most recent discovery relating to his legacy as a human being all the more satisfying. When perusing the news yesterday I came across an article by Bob Nightengale in USA Today which gave me a little more to reflect on, whenever Hank Aaron is next in the news. He’d been mentoring Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker for a few years, at that point. As two young black men playing for Atlanta in the late 60’s and early 70’s his presence was a source of comfort and security for them. I had known all that, already. What I didn’t know was just how close the three men had become in their time together. Garr was from the south, but Baker grew up in California and was very unhappy to have been drafted by the Braves. It was Aaron who convinced Baker to sign with the team by promising his mother that he’d look after him as if he were his own son. On the road the two twenty-somethings would spend much of their off-the-field time with the future Hall of Famer, taking most of their meals with him and subsequently meeting a parade of political and civil rights figures (Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Abernathy) with whom Aaron had legitimate relationships. And it was Aaron who kept them at a distance in the dugout when the hate mail graduated from the ugly to the frightening. In unquantifiable but no less real peril, he didn’t want them to be endangered by proximity to him. No wonder that they love him dearly to this day. Baker thinks of him as second only to his own father in terms of impact on his life. Garr has stated “… there’s no way there was a better human being.” And really, that’s his legacy. Records are meant to be broken. Nothing can ever eclipse his role in the lives that he’s touched.