Copyright The Kansas City Star
Let’s start here: Babe Ruth does not have the home-run record. Period. We’re about to start a confusing enough baseball season that will be clouded and blurred more every time Barry Bonds hits a home run. We don’t need to add to the madness.
Babe Ruth should be a nonfactor in all this. He was a great pitcher, great hitter and force of nature. He was a drunken, hot-dog stuffer who ran around on skinny legs, may or may not have called his shot and was sometimes chased on trains by naked women with knives. He’s an enduring character in American sports. But when it comes to home runs, he’s No. 2, and he has been for a long time.
John Kerry was No. 2. John Landy was No. 2. Elisha Gray was No. 2.
Every time someone talks about “Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth” or “Bonds breaking Ruth’s record” – and people do all the time – they’re snubbing Hank Aaron, the man who matters most in all this. They’re ignoring the strong, complicated, thoughtful and sometimes tortured man who mashed 755 home runs through the marches and fire hoses of the civil-rights movement. Hank Aaron still has boxes and bags filled with the death threats and racist letters he received.
Every mention of Babe Ruth’s “record” is an insult to Hank Aaron.
We’ve been here before. Aaron hit his 715th home run in Atlanta on April 8, 1974. Up to the homer, he had received almost a million letters, most of them supportive, some of them death threats. He hit the home run off Al Downing. Jimmy Wynn chased the ball to the wall. Tom House caught it in the bullpen. Two kids from the University of Georgia ran the bases with him.
That was the end of the Babe’s hallowed home-run record. Move over, Babe. Aaron was alone. Immediately after though, (as Aaron himself pointed out, not without bitterness) many people suddenly started referring to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as baseball’s most hallowed record. Others talked about how Ruth set his record in many fewer at-bats and would remain the home-run champ. Too many tried to disregard and cheapen what Aaron did. Unimaginably, the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, did not even go to the record-breaking game.
We like to say that was the times.
Well, have times changed so much? Thirty-two years later, Barry Bonds begins what will undoubtedly be the most bewildering and controversial record chase in baseball history … and people still talk about Babe Ruth. The Babe is very much the news. And I have to say it: Who cares about Babe Ruth? It is Hank Aaron’s record under assault here, nobody else’s. Nothing happens when Bonds passes Ruth’s number, nothing of consequence. Babe Ruth was passed long ago.
What we should be talking about here – the one bit of clarity in the madness – is just how amazing Hank Aaron was. Ruth hit his home runs when they played only in the daytime, when pitchers finished about half the games they started and, shamefully, when black and Latin players were barred from the major leagues. Bonds has hit his home runs in an era juiced by shrunken ballparks, shrunken strike zones, body armor and, most shamefully, steroids.
And Hank Aaron? He spent the first half of his career in Milwaukee, with the Braves, where he played ball in County Stadium, a hitter’s pit. He routinely hit 20-30 points higher on the road, in 12 years he banged 30 more home runs on the road. The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, to Fulton County Stadium. It was a home-run hitter’s paradise. But Aaron would become, by far, the most prominent black athlete in the American South in the same year that James Meredith was shot on a civil-rights march into Mississippi.
The Hammer hit. In the years from 1955 (when he was a 21-year-old kid still trying to remember to not hit cross-handed) to 1974 (when he was a toughened 40-year-old man who had read too many bigoted letters to be sentimental anymore), Aaron averaged 36 homers per season. Pitching dominated many of those seasons. The mound was higher. Ballparks were large. Strike zones were more or less from head to toe. Racism was still rampant. The Hammer hit.
Every baseball era has its own nature, of course, and I don’t know what Babe Ruth would have done with modern weight rooms and plane travel any more than what Barry Bonds would have done in an era without closers, lefty specialists, Dominican pitchers and the outright abuse of the intentional walk.
Aaron fell in the middle, after segregation, before designer steroids. He had his advantages, too. I’m certainly not saying that Aaron was better than Ruth, who hit .370 or better five times and in 1920 hit more home than any other team in the American League and had an 0.87 ERA in two World Series.
I also can’t say Aaron was better than Bonds – whose numbers if you are one of the few who can somehow separate them from the steroid shadows, are almost beyond imagination. Before 35, he was one of the great power-speed combinations ever. Since he turned 35, though, Bonds has a .533 on-base percentage, and he has hit 263 home runs, more than 50 per full year even though pitchers refuse to challenge him. Aaron never hit 50 homers in a season.
What I am saying is that Hank Aaron still has more home runs than either one. It’s an injustice to forget that.
The next few months will be wild. Nobody knows for sure how far baseball will go in its steroid investigation. Everyone will rant and scream opinions about Bonds – those who think he should be thrown out of the game, those who think that the game has always been tolerant of cheaters, and even a few stragglers who hold on to the dream that he did nothing wrong. People will argue about race and the media and baseball tradition and the sanctity of record books and the science of steroids. Questions will fly. I doubt we’ll get many answers.
People will also bring up Babe Ruth. They already do. They should stop. This season has nothing at all to do with Ruth. In many ways, it’s not about Barry Bonds either.
No, to me, this season is about a proud 62-year-old man who still lives in Atlanta, who hit more home runs than anyone because of stubbornness and will and astounding durability and a consistency unmatched in the annals of baseball history. Hank Aaron is the Home Run King. I don’t think we can say that enough times. In my mind, that won’t change no matter what happens this season.