I never will regret having rooted for Hank Aaron to break Babe Ruth’s career homerun record, just as I will never lose the vivid memory of watching it happen in the family room of the Gainesville townhouse my college roommates and I shared, on the 24-inch color RCA television provided by one of their dads.
I wanted Hammerin’ Hank to overtake Ruth because it would be history made in my lifetime, and not some fuzzy past remembered only on archived newsreels. Also because he had grown up in the South. And because he seemed like an altogether decent fellow.
And especially because it was no secret the worst sort of virulent racists weren’t just rooting against him, they were waging psychological warfare bristling with insults and threats. And that his team, the Atlanta Braves, took those threats seriously, assigning him a security guard and, on the road, putting him in hotels separate from his teammates, under an assumed name.
We were only six years removed, after all, from the April night Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tenn.
Lesser men would have folded. Lesser men would have lashed out. Not Aaron. He shattered a record once thought unreachable, and he did it with class.
Forty years later, anticipating the 40th anniversary of whacking that historic 1-0 fastball from Dodgers left-hander Al Downing into the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium left-field bullpen, Aaron sat down with Bob Nightengale of USA Today and revealed racism is a two-way country road, unpaved and miserable in both directions.
Forty years later, Aaron preserves the letters that oozed hate and ignorance. Forty years later, he still hauls them out, “to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Not a whole lot has changed? No, not if your perspective is stuck 40 years in the past, and viewed through a narrow prism, darkly. Having camouflaged his misery in pursuit of Ruth, Aaron, now 80, clings to it. And it prompts him to say things that are rude, uniformed and inflammatory. An entire country wanted to remember with fondness this good, noble and thoughtful legend, and mob him once again as he rounded third base.
Instead, Aaron brought mindless prejudice to the party.
Hammerin’ Hank, doing “The Time Warp.”
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. ... The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
This is sad and awful and gratuitous, even without getting bogged down over which political party is, historically, more closely aligned with the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not the GOP, but latter-day liberal pundits have convinced themselves and a fair number of history-challenged Americans that Richard Nixon’s notorious law-and-order “Southern Strategy” in 1968 prompted racist Dixiecrats – repelled by the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – to switch to and forever change the Party of Lincoln.
While this narrative withers under scrutiny, the larger point may well be that Aaron wasn’t simply giving voice to a unique, if hopelessly foolish, opinion, but instead was revealing a perspective commonplace in America’s black community.
Republicans for whom Aaron has long held a special place in coming-of-age memories are welcome to be momentarily dismayed and even outraged, but they can’t get stuck in time anymore than they can expect him to sit still while they explain the true nature of their policy disagreements with the President. Not when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan gently echoes Obama on the travails of so many U.S. cities – their troubles are linked to generations of men inhabiting those urban cores (wink-wink) having been socialized into accepting joblessness and government support as a way of life – and they immediately measure him for a KKK wardrobe.
Hank Aaron, who stood in against Don Drysale and Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins, knew a knockdown pitch when he saw one. Now that he’s fired one under the chin of the collective GOP, there’s a choice to be made: Go sulking back to the dugout, pants dirty and feelings hurt, or get up, dig in and figure out what how to make the most of an opportunity revealed.