It is an arc that represents our own lives and triumphs and fails and insecurities. We can grow from childhood to adulthood – or from young adulthood to middle age – during a favorite player’s career. And when he grows old by baseball standards, we suddenly do not feel so young.
As the James Earl Jones character says in the movie “Field of Dreams”: “The constant throughout the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled past like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased. Baseball goals have marked the time. “
All this came to mind on Friday with Hank Aron’s death at the age of 86.
He played in the major leagues from 1954-76 and became his sport’s homemade king through the ages, past Babe Ruth. And when Barry Bonds passed Aaron’s home record in 2007, Aaron graciously said three decades of the record was enough; someone else should keep it. This is despite widespread speculation that bonds had used performance-enhancing drugs.
Because Aaron was a black man chasing the record of the venerable Ruth, he was subjected to virulent racism and death threats as the record pulled within reach. This is also a microcosm of America.
“The Ruth hunt should have been the biggest period of my life, and it was the worst,” Aaron wrote in an autobiography from 1991. “I could not believe that there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I’ll never do it. ”
Aaron beat his record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, playing for the Atlanta Braves. I was 8, and obviously remember watching TV, aware that the story was made, but unaware of its social significance. It is only through the ages that the implications became clear. And it is only through the ages that enormous respect for a dignified and humble baseball hero took root.
As Vin Scully, a radio official for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ opponents, described the record: “What a wonderful moment for baseball. What a wonderful moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a wonderful moment for the country and the world. A black man gets a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it’s a great moment for all of us, and especially for Henry Aaron. ”
It really was a great moment for America. At a time when the civil rights movement had made great strides, but dreams remained unfulfilled, as they do now, it is impossible to ignore the implications. Aaron had grown up in Alabama, had reached the major leagues and returned to the South in mid-career when the Braves moved there, and had broken the most sacred record in a sport known as American Pastime.
The time goal tells us that it was 46 years ago. But occasionally in baseball, time stands still.