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Hank Aaron

August 8, 2007
 

“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which requires skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.” -Hank Aaron, 8/07/07

I just finished reading The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski’s excellent book about a year spent traveling around America with a 94-year-old Buck O’Neil. I highly recommend the book (as well as Posnanski’s brilliant, enjoyable blog). One section in the book covers O’Neil’s reactions to the congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005. O’Neil, who as many know was an excellent player and manager in the Negro Leagues, the first African American coach in the major leagues, a renowned scout whose signings included Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and (most importantly for myself and other children of the ’70s) the awe-inspiring Oscar Gamble, and an unmatched storyteller, historian, and ambassador for the game, was both drawn to and pained by the congressional hearings. In his mind, no one was being asked in those hearings to speak for baseball. O’Neil’s life was a glowing illustration of his belief that baseball was religion, but his views on steroid use were far from preachy; he knew that baseball players had always looked for an edge any way they could, and the only reason steroids hadn’t been used back in his day was because they hadn’t been available. Still, he found the steroid hearings wrenching, as if his beloved game had been thrown in a stockade at the center of town and was now being pelted with stinking, rotten fruit. 

Many people still sense a rotten stink on the game. Many people are bitter about the game they once loved. Buck O’Neil had as much opportunity to be bitter about baseball as anyone. He was not given the chance to be a major league player even though he was good enough. He was not given the chance to be a major league manager even though he was good enough. In his last year of life he was shockingly left out of a large collection of Negro Leaguers who were at long last enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. But he was never bitter, choosing instead to focus on finding and nourishing life and love, two rivers which to him kept intersecting again and again in his favorite game. Buck O’Neil was a great man.

My first thought when I found out this morning that the home run record had been broken was “so what?” Then I watched the video of the home run and was a little repelled by the record-breaker’s home-plate-touching moment, when he seemed almost oblivious to his son, who was hugging him. (Instead of hugging back, the record-holder focused on pointing with his bulging arms at the sky. I guess I hate religion if it means sons go unhugged.) (Author note/update: as pointed out by a couple readers in the comments below, he was actually pointing toward and thinking about his dad.) But anyway the bitterness dissolved when I saw the words of a man who, like Buck O’Neil, might have real cause to be bitter. They are noble words, classy words, and they’re true words, too. As unappealing as you or I might find the current record-holder, he did show a ton of “skill, longevity and determination.” He is also, ‘roids or not, the most fearsome hitter I’ve ever seen. Barry Bonds is a great baseball player. 

Hank Aaron is a great man.

17 comments

  1. 1.  I am no Bonds apologist, but the skyward point could have been aimed at his late father as opposed to a sky-god. Bonds’ son did figure prominently in the record-tying home run trot.

    Aaron’s voice sounded pretty strong in that video.

    Hank Aaron is a great man.


  2. 2.  1: Yeah, good point. I really have no right to criticize a guy I’ve never met who’s in the middle of a situation I’ve never been anywhere even remotely close to experiencing. I guess I was just trying to relate my own feelings at the moment, which then and often are pretty bitterness-tinged and dark. (I’m trying to change, Buck, I’m trying.) I heard Barry choked up when he started talking about his dad, so you definitely might be on to something about what was in his mind during the sky-point. I guess Bonds just comes across to me in the (distorting) public eye as such an unlikable guy that I am quick to heap scorn on him at every opportunity.


  3. 3.  I seem to recall that Bonds said in an interview or in his press conference later that night that he was indeed thinking of his father when pointing to the sky.


  4. 4.  When thinking of Bonds, I try to remember the following:

    I’ve met a dozen or so professional ballplayers and I’ve met twice as many sportswriters. Now I’m painting with a broad brush here, but most every sportswriter I’ve ever met was bitter or borderline crazy. Some were bitter about not being ballplayers themselves, some were older and were bitter about these young, better ballplayers who were erasing the memories of their heroes and some were bitter about the dollars involved in the modern game.

    Barry Bonds grew up reading stories about how his father was squandering his talent, stories that barely disguised an underlying racism that was still very prevalent in the 1970’s.

    Once Barry became a pro ballplayer, he was confronted with the same bitter old men that ran down his dad—what would any of us do in that same situation? Not surprisingly, Bonds was stand-offish and distant to the men who made his Dad’s life difficult. The bitter men made him pay for his audacity.

    I’m not going to say that all writers are vindictive and nasty, but there are certainly any number of men who have made it their life’s work to belittle Barry at every opportunity.

    Barry Bonds might be a giant prick of the first magnitude, but I’m not taking Bill Conlin’s word for it or Bill Plaschke’s or Skip Bayless or Dave Kindred’s or…


  5. 5.  I don’t think I’ll ever forgive David Aardsma for supplanting Aaron as the first name, alphabetically, in baseball history. He should have been forced to change his name to Ardsma.


  6. 6.  4: Good points about sportswriters and about Barry’s background. Thanks for that.

    5: Ha! I totally agree. Perhaps Hank feels the same, which would explain the glaring absence of a video tribute from him the day Aardsma made his debut. I try to take solace in the fact that in the baseball encyclopedia Hank’s name still comes first, since he’s at the head of the hitters register, which precedes the pitchers register.


  7. 7.  5 Very funny!

    I was there last night. Well, if you zoom up, Google-Earth-style, I was there.

    I had to go downtown to retrieve something from the office, which is about four long blocks North of the ballpark. The moment I came outside of the building, I heard a car beeping its horn and loud noises that could have been fireworks. I looked to the sky and didn’t see any lights in the fog, but then, I did see the sky light up, and I realized what must have happened. I got in my car, flipped the radio around, and confirmed: Barry Bonds had hit #756.

    I felt ambivalent. I both did and did not want to see the historic moment. I was there and not there. I have followed this journey and not followed it.

    But, as of this moment, I haven’t seen the video images.

    3 makes an interesting case, though not central to my main reservations: did he gain advantage from PEDs? And does he think we’re stupid enough to believe that he’s stupid enough to have believed that “the clear” was flax seed oil and that “the cream” was athritic cream?


  8. 8.  I have that same baseball card, probably in a little better condition though. I didn’t watch Bonds’ home run and don’t plan on ever watching a replay of it if I can help it.
    vr, Xei


  9. 9.  7 But really, the focus here might be better spent on Henry Aaron. I remember feeling ambivalence about his #715 because he hit it against the Dodgers. Hm. Maybe I’ll be able to be 100% behind A-Rod when he passes Bonds in 6-8 years, playing for some team I could support, against some team I don’t care about.


  10. 10.  8: Yeah, I really was careful with this card, huh? Clearly I liked handling it a lot and looking at the stats of the new home run king on the back.

    9: “Maybe I’ll be able to be 100% behind A-Rod”

    Ugh. My lunch is rising. Any other possibilities? Please, I’m begging you. How old is Ryan Howard? Probably too old already to make an assault on the record, I guess. Howard shows up in a great scene in The Soul of Baseball, his then teammate Kenny Lofton (yes, Lofton was a Phillie for a second, apparently) dragging Howard over to Buck O’Niel and telling him that Howard was “the new Josh Gibson.” Howard had yet to really break through. I don’t have the book in front of me, but the exchange between O’Neil and Howard went something like this:

    O’Neil: You got some power, son?
    Howard: I guess so, sir, a little.
    O’Neil: [Pause, staring up at the man-mountain.] Never be afraid to show your power, son! Swing hard!


  11. 11.  it pained me when buck o’neill didn’t get elected to the hall last year. minnie minoso, too. i want to see their faces on a plaque at cooperstown staring back at me, making me smile. in the future, i think there will be a lot of faces in the hall that leave me just shaking my head in disgust.


  12. 12.  10 At least you didn’t put it in your bicycle spokes.


  13. 13.  I was kind of relieved to see that Barry’s son wasn’t jumping into his lap as he has seemed to do since he was a toddler, after every ‘milestone’ homer. Barry may have told him to chill on the jump into daddy’s arms for once. It was kind of Barry’s moment, and the way the grown man-child always seemed to be there was bordering on ‘weird’. As a usual fan of the ‘weird’, I was glad to see the player (not ‘the man’ as this thread seems to be pointing out) have his moment.


  14. 14.  Here is my post in the “Lounge” at BTF, the day after 756 was hit. It discusses the connection between baseball and life:

    Posted: 08 August 2007 08:32 AM

    Dear Loungers:

    As many of you know, my dad just died. 63 years young. I have to share a story that ties baseball history to our souls. I love Henry Aaron, and who he was and what he accomplished. I still remember when Hank hit 715; I was 8 years old. I never liked Bonds. In any event, my dad called my brother last week, and said he wanted to actually see Bonds break the record. He was a huge sports fan, and knew history was in the making, even though he didn’t particularly like Bonds. He wanted to witness the historic baseball event. My brother, who is the coolest guy around, told dad that Bonds would tie Aaron’s record on Saturday. And, Bonds did tie it on Saturday. My Dad called my brother on Monday, and said, “My son is psycic! You were right. Holy ####! When will Bonds hit 756?” My brother said, “Tuesday night dad. He’ll hit it on Tuesday night.” My dad replied, “Ok, you know what you’re talking about . . . I’m staying up all night tomorrow to see THIS! I am ready to bet the house on him hitting it tomorrow night.” That was Monday morning. My dad died that evening.

    My brother told me this story last night (Tuesday). I said to my brother last night, “If Bonds hits 756 tonight, it will be the spookiest #### I’ve ever experienced.” My brother laughed and and agreed. I watched Bonds’s first two at-bats, and then went to bed. My 12-year old daughter woke me up this morning . . . “Dad, Dad, Bonds hit a homer last night, in the 5th inning!” I just cried. Dad didn’t even get to see it.

    Baseball links to life, and death. Forever in my mind, the new Bonds mark will have a meaning I never expected. Dad didn’t get to see 756. There wasn’t much we could talk about over the years (more on this later, perhaps), except sports, which always dominated over conversations. Dad wanted to see 756, as a sports fan. He didn’t get to see it.

    Thanks for all of the caring posts yesterday Loungers. Trust me, it really helped.

    Catfish


  15. 15.  My drawing of Hank that was posted with my article on the 1975 All-Star game is found at:

    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/primate_studies/discussion/the_1975_all_star_game/

    It was drawn from his 1975 Topps card.


  16. 16.  14 , 15 : Thanks for posting these thoughts, Catfish. Puts the whole home run record into a new light for me, a real light far beyond the media bombast of all shapes and colors. I’m really sorry for your loss.


  17. 17.  He probably was pointing up to his father. Then again, he also said he was just “sitting around on his ass” as he lay dying.

    http://vaughnsbar.blogspot.com/2007/08/tribute-to-barry-bonds-part-four.html

    Bonds quotes are unreal, man. Check this out:

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4155/is_20060330/ai_n16194706



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