(Jan. 22) MOBILE, Alabama — For those too young to remember it, Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time Major League Baseball home run record was one of the most galvanizing sagas in sports history. Aaron, who died on Friday, just two weeks shy of his 87th birthday, pursued and achieved the record with courage, dignity, and class. In doing so, he also achieved long-lasting benefits for race relations, including here in his hometown, at a significant personal, emotional cost of his own.

Ruth’s record had stood for 39 years, with only Aaron and Willie Mays ever threatening to come within 100 dingers of Ruth’s 714. Mays, who had lost two early-career seasons to Korean War service, was always likely to fall just a bit short. Aaron, who lacked Mays’s flair and his New York-to-California media attention, had labored in relative shadows in Middle America, playing for the Braves.

Then, in early 1973, it became apparent that Aaron, then 39, wasn’t letting age slow him down. He really had a chance. As letters by the thousands flowed in every week, a significant part of it hate mail from racists who were furious that a black man would dethrone the Bambino, Aaron put together the eighth 40-homer season of his long career. He cleared the fence in more than one of every 10 at-bats — a remarkable feat at any age, much less for someone in his 20th big-league season.

Everywhere he went, the spotlight shone. Everywhere he went, the pressure grew. And while the vast majority of people were rooting for him to succeed, the vitriol (and sometimes threats) from the racists wore unmercifully on Aaron.

Still, he persisted. Smiling less than some expected but refusing (until after the record was his) to express the bitterness he felt about the hate and threats, Aaron remained gracious and approachable to the media while avoiding braggadocio. And, almost like a metronome, his homers kept coming….

[The full column is at this link.]


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