Aaron still quiet despite the record
By Gene Collier
Fifty-three years ago Friday, Henry Louis Aaron made his major-league debut with five pretty lifeless at-bats in which he didn’t so much as manage a loud foul.
That he announced himself with a whispery 0-for-5 seems just about perfectly fitting, even for someone who would spend the next 23 years flexing his great hands and miraculous wrists around more hitting records than anyone in major-league history.
“The thing that I remember,” Pirates World Series hero Steve Blass said, “is that when I first came up he was the one guy who had home run power to all fields. As he got closer to the record, he was more committed to pulling the ball, so he was actually tougher to pitch to earlier.”
Yes, ahem, the record.
The record is little else but the total Ruthian eclipse, 755 homers, at least for now, and the record is why everyone wants Hank Aaron to talk again. From now until it’s not. But The Hammer wants to whisper, as ever, and only if he must. His whole career was the sensory equivalent of a summer breeze, soothing and natural, only ever as capricious as is required by the game’s flinty probabilities.
Even from his relatively secluded life of inactive cultural royalty, Aaron, 72, will be compelled to say things as 755 comes under threat, and he will no doubt say some things that will sound insufficient or tinny or even embittered, scolding and cranky.
He didn’t ask for this. He doesn’t deserve this.
“Somebody asked me if I’m rooting for (the record to fall),” Blass said. “I gotta say no. I pitched against him. He did all the right things. He exuded class. He was consistent with people. In my mind, I’d just as soon see his record stay.”
The honest reaction of many who feel a connection to Aaron, whether it was Blass staring at him across 60 feet of serious jeopardy or any of the game’s enthralled fans watching him launch any of the 755, is that this might not be their favorite summer.
For them, the only celebration at the passing of 755 will be the opportunity to revisit the quiet adventures of Bad Henry, whose role in baseball’s comparative literature resonates through not only a game’s history, but a nation’s. The first black to play in the South Atlantic League, Aaron tore through two minor-league summers before getting his break, literally. Bobby Thomson, the slugger who had scrawled the game’s signature moment with his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951, snapped his ankle sliding into third in an exhibition game against the Pirates in March 1954. That opened a roster spot for a skinny left fielder out of Mobile
Aaron hit his first homer off Vic Raschi April 23 of that year, and his last off Dick Drago July 20, 1976. In between, a career that made him virtually synonymous with the home run leaned toward obscuring the total player Aaron made himself. He finished among the league’s top 10 in stolen bases eight times and won three Gold Gloves. In an era when only players voted for the All-Star team, he was the first unanimous selection. He stole home. He singled in the hole. He played hitters perfectly.
When contemporary and post-modern critics reached purposefully for flaws, it was suggested that unlike Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, Aaron was colorless. Where their play seemed comprised of great symphonic movements, Aaron’s was still a relative whisper.
“The only thing really flashy about him were the home run numbers,” Blass said. “He had a quiet, classy quality. He was not a headline guy. A lot of people forget he was a terrific baserunner. He stole bases when it mattered. He did everything right. He caught everything he should have. He threw everywhere he should have.”
And when he found himself stride for loping home run stride with the ghost of Babe Ruth, with metric tons of racist hate mail following him across a continent, he stood in against Al Downing the night of April 8, 1974, and wristed a 1-0 fastball into the bullpen.
Even as the event was practically suffocating him, he made it look easy.
Aaron was more relieved than proud. His pride came in the consistency of his home-run output — “never more than 44 in a season,” he said recently — and it says a lot about him that he isn’t even aware that he hit 45 in 1962 and 47 in ’71.
His favorite homer came Sept. 23, 1957, because it won the pennant for the Milwaukee Braves. He hit three more in the World Series to beat the Yankees.
Today, a statue of Hank Aaron stands majestically on the concourse outside the Atlanta stadium that should be named after him. The artist has captured him at the end of his swing, his eyes wide and his lithe body just beginning to lean into the basepath.
There is, all around it, a whisper of grace and modesty. Or is that just me?
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