By Anthony McClean, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus
He wasn’t supposed to be the guy. He wasn’t even on the radar.
Not that he wasn’t a great player, but he just wasn’t supposed to be “The One”.
It was supposed to be Willie Mays, or Harmon Killebrew, or Frank Robinson, or Frank Howard, or maybe even Roberto Clemente. When the talk of either approaching or even breaking the hallowed mark of 714 homers, Hank Aaron’s name was never even considered.
However, as the aforementioned guys began to fall by the wayside, that skinny guy from Alabama by way of the Negro Leagues was methodically and gradually moving up the baseball charts. The man from Mobile was winning batting championships, All-Star Games, Gold Gloves, and other things that make up a future Hall of Fame checklist.
Not to mention an MVP award, a World Series title as well as homer and RBI crowns. Still as baseball entered its 100th anniversary in 1969, Aaron quietly continued his ascent from star to superstar. Despite getting swept by the New York Mets in the inaugural National League Championship Series, Aaron homers in all three games while hitting .357 and driving in 7 of Atlanta’s 15 runs.
This came just a year after reaching the 500-homer plateau. On May 17, 1970, Aaron reached the 3,000-hit plateau against the Cincinnati Reds. A year later on April 27th, he became the third player in Major League history to reach the 600-homer plateau.
During the strike-shortened season of 1972, Aaron tied and then surpassed Mays for second place on the career home run list. Aaron also drove in the 2,000th run of his career and hit a home run in the first All-Star game played in Atlanta.
By the time 1973 rolled around, Aaron had literally and statistically become “The Man”. A virtual “accidental tourist” had caught the baseball world and sports world by storm. After being overlooked for so long, Aaron “messed around and hit 700 homers”, to coin an old Ice Cube phrase.
In fact, Aaron would finish the season just one homer shy of the hallowed mark of 714. While many applauded the Hammer’s accomplishments, there were others who weren’t to cool about the whole thing. From the end of the 1973 season and the beginning of the 1974 season, Aaron became the target of bigoted hate mail from “fans” wanting to keep the record “pure”.
Aaron would later acknowledge that his most important feat wasn’t passing the Babe, but in fact being able to survive the off season leading up to it. He not only survived the upheaval, he would do it with his continued grace and dignity that defined his life on and off the field.
On Opening Day in Cincinnati, the Hammer tied Ruth on his first at-bat with a homer off Jack Billingham. When then Atlanta manager and former teammate Eddie Matthews stated he would sit Aaron for the remainder of the series so the record could be broken in Dixie.
However, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stated had to play in the rest of the three-game series to protect “the integrity of Major League Baseball”. The Hammer played out the series and didn’t hit the historic homer at Cincy.
Eventually on April 8th, Aaron’s destiny would be reached as he broke Ruth’s record in Atlanta when he hit 715 off L.A.’s Al Downing. The ultimate irony? Commissioner Kuhn wasn’t in Atlanta that night. He was attending a dinner for Cleveland’s Wahoo Club to celebrate the Indians’ opening home series.
So much for the “dignity of MLB”, huh? It was just another chapter in what seemed to be the sport’s continuing lack of respect to one of its greatest ambassadors. As has been his persona over the years, Aaron persevered and moved on as his playing career was winding down.
When news of No. 44’s passing on Friday, the first thing that came to my mind wasn’t the record or his awesome numbers. It always came back to how Aaron was perceived by the “experts” of the game. During Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Aaron’s 755 homers, many would attempt to pit the pair against each other within the media.
Again it was the Hammer who rose above it all in his continued class and dignity. He praised Bonds and his pursuit of his record. While the then 75-year-old Aaron did not physically follow the chase at the individual ballparks, he proved to be one of Bonds’ biggest supporters despite the continued vilification of the future home run king.
One could almost say that he saw a lot of himself in Bonds during the chase. Despite all the accolades that had been heaped on Bonds, he was — dare I say it — not supposed to be “The Man” to break the record. An “accidental tourist” so to speak.
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.