“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.