|Last updated: 6/26/04 3:33 PM|
|Last updated: 6/26/04 3:33 PM|
Published: Wed, Jun 23, 2004
A few years ago when the Cleveland Indians were World Series challengers and retro baseball uniforms were popular, I wore a Hank Aaron Atlanta Braves model to Canfield's Fourth of July festivities.
One of the Mahoning Valley's most successful high school coaches saw my "44" jersey and teased me for not wearing Indians red, white and blue. (The fact that the Braves defeated the Tribe in the 1995 World Series might have prompted the teasing.)
I responded that I was paying tribute to a great American hero "Hammering" Hank Aaron was one of baseball's pioneers in what many feel (especially Aaron) is an ongoing battle against prejudice.
While I was growing up in the 1960s, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew were legendary sluggers who were easy to admire even though they didn't play for our regional baseball teams. Maybe it's because the home runs that came off their bats seemed harder to come by then.
Like many fans from that era, I remember the drama and excitement of April 8, 1974, when Aaron hit his 715th homer to surpass Babe Ruth as Home Run King.
But I confess I had no idea just how much hatred was showered on Aaron during his home run chase until I read his 1991 autobiography "I Had a Hammer." The book has been published again in honor of the 30th anniversary of the historic homer.
Aaron's book reveals a bitter man full of pride and frustration, especially at the lack of minority hirings in baseball's front offices. For those old enough to remember when Major League Baseball players didn't earn $100,000 a season, it's a fascinating look back.
While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier at the major-league level in 1947, Aaron and a few other African-Americans in the early 1950s were the first to play minor league ball in the South Atlantic League in such racially-intolerant locales as Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
He mentioned his pain when he and his teammates ate at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, then heard the owners breaking the plates they used rather than wash them for reuse.
Sadly, 20 years later, Aaron still was being hounded by racists as he chased Ruth's ghost.
In 1974, when Aaron asked baseball officials on opening day for a moment of silence to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the sixth anniversary of his assassination, he received no response. He tied Ruth's record on that day in Cincinnati.
Aaron is no saint he pulls no punches about the disintegration of his first marriage and how he would sometimes use his fists to settle disputes.
Baseball fans are going to be hearing a lot about Aaron in the coming months as Giants slugger Barry Bonds closes in on Ruth's mark and Aaron's 755.
A lot has happened to change baseball since "I Had a Hammer" was published. I would love to hear Aaron's thoughts on whether he feels things have gotten better.
For instance, Aaron's top salary was $240,000. What does he think of Alex Rodriguez's salary of $25 million?
Since 1992, the majors have added four teams, and 17 of the current 30 teams played in ballparks that weren't used in 1991. What does he think of the smaller ballparks and diluted pitching?
Since baseball's last strike resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, home runs have been flying out at record rates. Does he think it's easier to hit homers today? What's up with the bodies of today's players? Does he believe they've been juiced or are better training methods the secret to their success?
With Robinson (Expos), Lloyd McClendon (Pirates), Tony Pena (Royals), Ozzie Guillen (White Sox), Dusty Baker (Cubs) and Felipe Alou (Giants) managing, does he feel progress has been made in minority hirings at baseball's higher levels?
Does he feel that general managers Omar Minaya (Expos) and Kenny Williams (White Sox) are a good start for minorities in important executive positions?
Does he believe Bonds is baseball's greatest natural slugger? Does he wish more teams would pitch to Bonds (and get the chase over with sooner) or does he want to remain the Home Run King a little while longer?
Thirty years ago, Aaron defined grace under pressure. Hopefully, that improves.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.