“Hammering’ Hank Aaron is more than just a baseball great. He is a man whose legacy is forever etched in the walls of history. Forty years ago today, Hank Aaron his his 715th home run and he passed Babe Ruth on the all-time homerun list. That was a great day for Hank Aaron, but it came with a price. The grace afforded the game of baseball by this black man came at a cost: Hank Aaron was never allowed to express his anger, defend his manhood or speak out against the racism and bigotry that was systemic and widely accepted. As a result, Aaron, now 80 years old, never forgets what he did and the price he paid. In fact he still keeps the letter from racist watchers who threatened his life:
“You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it,” one of them reads. “Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move.”
Hank Arron says he’s kept those letters as a reminder of how far we have and haven’t come:
“To remind myself,” Aaron tells 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.”
The truth Aaron now speaks can be reflected in how athletes are depicted in sports. Just recently a writer for USA Today Sports called Jim Irsay a “troubled man who just needs help” when he was arrested for DUI with drugs and money in his car. What wasn’t said or suggested was ties to gangs or drug trafficking. The word “thug” often used to describe the athletes, who are often African-American, who sometimes end up in these situations was never used.
Hank Aaron, who was and still is a private man, often carried the burden of his role feeling isolated. He never really talked about it, even to close friends or shared his feelings about what was happening. As such, he understandably still carries anger and bitterness from that time.
“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.”
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said of Aaron:
“I can’t think of a better human being to achieve what he did and carry himself the way he has, and, as a result, baseball is better because of him.”
Selig may be right but not fighting back to defend your honor as a human being and a man to appeal to white America’s need to see a humble, soft black man, came with a price. Aaron still remembers that time, and the pain that came with it.
“I don’t think about it that much,” Aaron says, “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.
So while America and the MLB rightfully honors and celebrates Aaron’s achievements on the filed, perhaps the better way to pay homage would be to honor what he overcame to get there.
It can be easy to say that Aaron should just get over it, but to say that would be insensitive. You need to have walked in his cleats. Lived in his skin. This moment was bigger than breaking Babe Ruth’s record.
It’s about striking out racism.
What do you think?
Your Jersey Girlfriend,