Our View: Remembering Hank Aaron

DKS Editors

Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of the day Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It was a time when America still revered the mark with romance, before the cynicism of steroids and performance enhancers turned our athlete-heroes into possible criminals met with skepticism.

When baseball was still the nation’s most popular game, it meant a lot to be the home run king. Babe Ruth was that man for half a century before Hank Aaron hit his record-making 715th home run. It was an achievement that holds plenty of weight on its own merit, but it’s important to remember the struggle that Aaron had to go through to get it.

For years, professional baseball in America was a glaring symbol of our country’s exclusion. A “gentleman’s agreement” kept black players out of the game until 1942, and to this day, it remains a struggle for black managers to be represented among the coaching ranks. The struggle for black players in professional baseball in many ways mirrored the struggle of African-Americans in the United States as a whole.

For those who were unhappy to see baseball integrate, the fact that a white man still held the sports’ two most hallowed records — the career home run mark and the single season one, which, after 1961, was owned by Roger Maris — was a comfort. Much like Jackie Robinson, Aaron had a hard road to Major League stardom. He started out in the old Negro Leagues and spent much of his career playing in Atlanta, a city where Jim Crow was still a very real memory.

Aaron famously received death threats as he neared Ruth’s record. It might have been the 1970s, three decades after the official integration of baseball, but it was still a time when racism was conspicuous.

It was an important moment in the history of baseball, not only because of its importance for the record books, but because of what it meant for the sport’s struggle for equality. In a sport that banned non-white players for generations, Aaron had secured a spot among its all-time greats.

The monument in Atlanta that marks the spot where Aaron’s historic blast struck might be lost forever when the Braves abandon Turner Field for a new stadium, but the memory of Aaron’s heroic deed will live on.