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Hank Aaron praises Barry Bonds for home run record

Workers World commentary

Published Aug 15, 2007 11:24 PM

On Aug. 7, Barry Bonds broke the greatest record in sports in the United States. Bonds hit his 756th career home run at his home ballpark in San Francisco, breaking the record previously held by Henry “Hank” Aaron. Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs in 1974.

Barry Bonds

The Aug. 7 game was halted temporarily for ceremonies honoring Bonds. To the surprise of most in the crowd, a video message, played on the huge video screen behind centerfield, showed Aaron warmly congratulating Barry Bonds on his spectacular feat.

Why was Aaron’s message a surprise to so many? It was a surprise due to the big business media sports talk shows repeatedly trying to play Aaron off against Bonds in order to sully the new record and the new record holder. During the months long lead-up to the breaking of the record, instead of repeating Aaron’s comments praising Bonds, the media focused on Aaron’s statements that he would not be present when Bonds broke the record. They never quoted the second half of Aaron’s statement saying that he felt that the historic event was Bond’s to savor and if he were present, it would shift attention away from Bonds. This is something he didn’t want to happen.

In Major League Baseball, records are more important than in any other sport. The game is so statistically oriented that many children memorize batting averages. Every batter who comes to the plate has his batting average, home runs, RBIs, etc., scrutinized by the radio and television announcers virtually every time.

Numbers, whether they are understood or misunderstood, are at the very heart of the game and the biggest single number is the home run individual season and career totals. As such, every time that a new “Home Run King” appears, a big controversy almost immediately takes place as the hearts are broken of the fans whose “sports hero” is pushed aside in the record books. The big business media invariably fan the flames of this controversy so as to sell their newspapers or gain TV and radio ratings. The big business media love controversy, and if a little racism can be added to the controversy so as to make it an even bigger “story,” so be it, regardless of the truth of the matter!

When George Herman “Babe” Ruth came on the scene he smacked homer after homer for the New York Yankees. The big business media claimed that it was all the result of the introduction of the “lively ball.” The so-called “dead-ball era” vs. the “lively-ball era” is mostly myth as a result.

What occurred was a change in hitting style, introduced into baseball by “The Babe,” combined with the introduction of the new, more homer-friendly stadiums. In 1961, when another New York Yankee outfielder, Roger Maris, threatened to break “Babe Ruth’s hallowed record” of sixty home runs in a single season—a record set by Ruth in 1927—Maris was attacked unmercifully in the media and by the New York Yankee fans who resented any attempt to break the record of Ruth, also known as “The Great Bambino.”

During that 1961 season the pressure on Maris was so great that all his hair fell out! After he broke the record, the media demanded that the baseball commissioner place an asterisk next to Maris’ record because he played in more games than “The Babe.” The baseball commissioner willingly complied and Maris’ record sat there with the asterisk attached as if to say, “The real record still belongs to ‘The Babe.’”

Breaking down racist barriers

Even though Roger Maris was white, and there was absolutely no racism directed at him, there was still a small tinge of racism involved. How so? Weren’t the Yankees still an almost completely lily-white organization as well as one of the last holdouts against baseball integration? It would have been inconceivable, at that time, to even imagine Roger Maris and any of the other white Yankee players speaking out against racism. Yes, that is so, but nothing happens in isolation.

This was the beginning of the 1960s. Almost all of professional sports were integrating and there was an almost desperate attitude by reactionary whites at that time always yearning for the “Great White Hope.” Boxing was becoming dominated by people of color. Basketball and football were integrating with the greatest stars, like Bill Russell and Jim Brown, coming to the fore. It was a period of transition and many racist whites viewed Babe Ruth’s records as the last bastion of white supremacy in sports.

Roger Maris was playing at a time when Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente were already established baseball stars. It was only three years later during the historic 1964 World Series, when the Yankees were dominated by a great Black pitcher, Bob Gibson, from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That World Series defeat forced the New York Yankees to integrate, in order to be able to compete under the new conditions. Roger Maris, in my opinion, became in a small way an unwitting victim of the pervasive white reactionary fear of the new social conditions created by the civil rights movement.

As a youth, I hated the Yankees, but I really sympathized with Roger Maris as he endured the endless attacks. It was a shameful moment in sports history and the asterisk placed by the baseball commissioner was just the final shameful act of a shameful year in baseball history.

When Henry Aaron was approaching Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs, he did so as a member of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. It was only a few years earlier that professional sports teams had first come to the apartheid South. The symbolism of a proud Black man breaking Babe Ruth’s record in the uniform of a team based in Atlanta was inescapable. Henry Aaron had to endure repeated death threats aimed at him and his family, as a result. Aaron’s accomplishment became another defeat for racism both in sports and in the apartheid South.

As for Barry Bonds’ great accomplishment, unfortunately, once again, the baseball commissioner has played a negative role. Instead of cheering on Barry Bonds, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had to be prompted to even attend the game where Bonds tied Aaron’s record. When the home run actually occurred, Selig had to be prompted to even stand up. He stood there with a bemused look on his face and his hands stuffed in his pockets! Shame on him!

Hooray for Barry Bonds! You have stood up to the pressure as they tried to bring you down, and yet you persevered. Isn’t that what a real hero is all about?