In the mid-’70s, before the rise of the Furious Five, Funky Four + 1 More, the Cold Crush Brother and the Fantastic Romantic 5, the only crew in the Bronx that mattered resided on 161st Street and River Avenue. Baseball was our thing. Buy, selling, trading and gambling with our TOPPS and/or Fleer cards was THE daily lunchroom ritual. We’d crack open a fresh pack and remove the players we deemed as untouchable. That 1976 Topps RECORD BREAKER #1 indicating Most Runs Batted in Lifetime was one of them ones!! That dude in the Milwaukee Brewers uniform was good but we didn’t realize at the time the depth of his play. That would change later in the season when I got treated to a game at Yankee Stadium. It was one of the special games and hanging out in the back waiting for autographs was mandated. During the wait for arrivals and departures you got to hear the old baseball historians chop it up about the greatest living players of the day. The consensus was always Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Given the locale, I could understand the love for the latter two but more striking was the omissions. Considering that right over the bridge about a mile or two away was the Polo Grounds, former home of the most charismatic and one of the most prolific men to ever lace a pair of cleats in Willie Mays I opined as a shorty. Granted I never saw him play in his prime, but I watched highlights, read and listened to the older Harlem griots wax poetic about him. My argument was shut down, but an older brother served up another name for the discussion. He pulled out that same baseball card that I had along with another from that year. “Read these,” was all the brethren said as they passed the cards around. Silence!!! “Young brother, numbers don’t lie,” he told me and dapped my pops before he bounced. That put me up on some game early: there was a difference between being a star and being GREAT. Stars have other people talking, GREATS let the work speak for itself. Since he began his professional career in 1954, Henry Aaron put up steady, consistent, HUGE offensive numbers over the course of his 23-year tenure. By the end of the 1973 season, however, the world caught up as he finished the season with a career tally of 713 home runs, putting him on the precipice of tying the most revered record in sports: Baby Ruth’s career record for home runs. On April 8, 1974, in front of a record of 53,775 for the Atlanta Braves franchise, Aaron, in the fourth inning, took Los Angeles pitcher Al Downing deep for number 715.
Aaron bowed out as a player in 1976, ending his career with 755. Aaron would find that all records are made to be broken, and Barry Bonds supplanted him as the KING of the Major League Baseball home run. Making a surprise appearance on the Jumbotron video screen at AT&T Park in San Francisco to congratulate Bonds on his accomplishment, the classy Aaron said, “I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required 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.”
Even amid the circumstances in which his record toppled, amid steroid allegations by Bonds, Hank Aaron took the high road and decided not to discredit the achievements of a young man obviously inspired by his path. It wasn’t just about the journey, it was about the mud and arrows that were thrown in the pursuit of proving himself just as good or in this case better in what was once deemed the country’s pastime, as the jingle, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, they go together in the good ol’ USA” would attest. In an interview with Dan Patrick in 2016 Aaron revealed that he held no memorabilia from his playing days as they were all donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he did keep some keepsakes as a memory. The vitriol was real, and the USPS delivered the message delivered loud and clear by disgruntled Americans. “I kept quite a few of those letters to share with my grandchildren that it was not that long ago that I too was a target of racism.”
Muhammad Ali was alleged to have said, “Hank was the only man I idolized more than myself.” Polar opposites in their style, but kindred spirits in their impact. Rest in Power Hammerin’ Hank Aaron!