Monday, May 15, 2006

Poor Hank

Barry Bonds hasn't hit a home run for a week and remains stuck at 713 career homers. This gives baseball even more time to ignore Hank Aaron.

Aaron's historical status is the game's most baffling unsolved mystery. He is the owner of baseball's most hallowed career record, its all-time home run king. The cold type of the Encyclopedia shows Aaron can't rank anywhere lower than fourth in a list of the best position players (non-pitchers) EVER, and has a damn fine case for heading the list.

Aaron's last season was in 1976. He's third all-time in games played, third in hits, and ninth in doubles. There are the homers, of course, but Hank also stands second only to Ty Cobb in runs scored, and had more RBI than any player who ever stepped on a big league ballfield.

I grew up watching, and fearing, Aaron. That was a joy, but I almost envy those too young for that privilege for the moment when they encounter Aaron's numbers for the first time and are struck with a flash of light spelling "Holy Shit!"

Yet whenever slugging records are menaced, or the stars of today are weighed against the legends of yesteryear, Aaron is slighted, almost overlooked.

There was only one such burning issue this past winter. Everyone in the baseball community from Bud Selig to eight-year old Padres fans was consumed with the meaning of Bonds' homer total and the artificial means he used to compile it. The Giants' swollen-headed misanthrope was going to have more homers than Babe Ruth! Something must be done, or should it? Contentious debate took place in board rooms and barrooms.

Relatively few voices said "Who cares who's SECOND-best on the homer list? No way Bonds catches the immortal Aaron."

It's as if Aaron's record never happened. Babe still outranks him, no matter what the numbers say. Worse yet, Aaron's contemporaries outrank him.

Ever alert to commercial trends, the publishing industry threw out two new baseball biographies to coincide with Bonds' 714th. One was a new study of Ruth by Leigh Montville. The other was written by David Maraniss on Roberto Clemente.

There aren't two better authors on sports than Maraniss and Montville. Clemente surely deserves his life to have his life commemorated. But what about Hank? Where's his Boswell?Among other advantages Aaron has for potential biographers, he's still alive to tell his tale.

For Aaron, literary history repeats itself. In the winter of 1974, when it was apparent Aaron would surpass Ruth's "unbreakable" mark of 714 career homers, Robert Creamer came out with "Babe", his definitive and superlative Ruth biography. Aaron's quest earned him admiration, but it also stirred a great national wave of nostalgia for the hero he was passing by. The racist hater who plagued Aaron's life at that time were a tiny minority. Crueler by far was baseball's majority, who made it clear that they might respect Aaron, but reserved their true love for Babe.

Ruth was a prodigious and original American character. What that has to do with a man's relative merit as a ballplayer escapes me.

The sad truth of Aaron's career is this: He's been overlooked forever. He was a megastar destined to be eclipsed by others, even in his prime. Worst of all, the folks doing the overlooking knew this was unjust, but couldn't stop doing so.

Aaron spent his prime in Willie Mays' shadow. Mays was Aaron's match, but hardly his superior. The "Say Hey Kid," however, was lyricized as the embodiment of playfulness in sanitary socks.
Ruth was real. Mays' legend was pure moonshine. Mays was Bonds' godfather in more ways than one-including misanthropy. Aaron's image was of quiet deadliness. The world doesn't change much. Those who don't blow their own horn got lost in the shuffle than as they do now.
Aaron was National League MVP just once, when the Milwaukee Braves won the pennant and World Series in 1957. The writers never gave him the award again. Someone else always caught their fancy.

In 1963, Aaron led the league in slugging percentage, as well as homers (44), runs (121), and RBI (130). He had 201 hits, and for dessert, stole 31 bases. The MVP went to some bum southpaw named Koufax.

OK, the Dodgers were champs that year, and the Braves finished up the track. What explains 1959? Aaron led the league in hitting (.355), slugging (.636), hits (223), hit 39 homers and had 123 RBI. The Braves lost the NL pennant in a playoff with the Dodgers. League MVP went to ebullient Ernie Banks of the 74-80, fifth place Chicago Cubs.

Some folks have the knack for capturing the public imagination and some don't, no matter what their other gifts may be, and Aaron falls into the latter category. He's what fans say they admire in our hype-drenched age, but seldom really do.

Aside from a certain edginess on the issue of race (can't imagine how Aaron picked that up), the home run king is an appealing legend, modest and cheerful. He's still willing to take one for the team. Maybe that's Aaron's problem.

Aaron was a centerpiece of one of the most unpleasant spectacles ever seen on a baseball diamond during the 2004 World Series at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. There's a slugging award of some sort named after Bad Henry, and Aaron was on hand to help Commissioner Selig present the title to that year's winner-Barry Bonds.

The steroid scandal was at full boil. Bonds had already testified before the BALCO grand jury. His feats were controversial, no, lethally radioactive. The trophy presentation was preceded by a press conference where questions were banned.

Aaron went out to the pitcher's mound and handed over the award bearing his name as if nothing was amiss. This was in the best interests of the baseball business, but it sure wasn't in the best interests of Hank Aaron, baseball legend. Given a superb opportunity to draw attention to himself, Aaron passed.

One has to conclude Aaron likes passing slightly beneath baseball's consciousness. Most underrated superstar in history, after all, is a singular title all its own.

History, however, is first of all meant to be accurate. Accuracy, not to mention justice, demands Aaron find more acclaim and a Boswell of his own.

I could find him a motivated biographer with time on his hands.


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