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The People's King (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 1:05PM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 2:44PM
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Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron.
Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron.
John G. Zimmerman/SI

Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, who also played with Aaron, recently began a conversation about the home run record with a disclaimer, apropos of the times: "I don't really want to talk about Bonds at all." But Uecker said it was important to recognize that Aaron's generation of hitters faced more duress than the current one.

"I think you're talking about a whole different scenario with players back then knowing knockdown pitches were as common as guys taking batting practice," he explained. "Throwing at people's heads was part of the game. Somebody hit a home run? The next guy coming up was going down. Hitters today don't have to worry about guys throwing at them all the time. And they still wear armor like policemen wear."

But 755 is, even by Aaron's estimation, an incomplete measure of the ballplayer and the man. Aaron said in his autobiography that he regarded the total bases record as more representative of "what I was all about as a hitter. . . . It also tells me something that the record had been [Stan] Musial's, because I consider myself to be much more like Musial than Ruth, both as a hitter and as a person."

Even more monumental than what Aaron accomplished is what he endured. In 1953, at age 19, only one year removed from hitting cross-handed for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro leagues, he was one of five players thrust into the integration of the Class A South Atlantic League, in the heart of Dixie. (The major leagues, which Robinson had integrated six years earlier, still played no farther south than St. Louis and Cincinnati.) Aaron could not eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same hotels or drink from the same fountains as his white teammates. Fans heaped racially charged insults at the teenager. A white teammate, Joe Andrews, bat in hand, would escort him out of the ballpark after games. And lo, Aaron hit .362 and was named the league's MVP.

Two decades later, as he chased and ultimately passed Ruth, Aaron received thousands of racially charged hate letters. There were threats on his life, and an Atlanta policeman, Calvin Wardlaw, was assigned to provide him with round-the-clock protection, keeping a snub-nosed .45 handgun in a binocular case. Aaron refused to ride in convertibles for fear of his own safety, a precautionary habit he has kept to this day. Though Aaron drew large, supportive crowds on the road, he often was ignored at home. When he hit home run number 711, for instance, there were only 1,362 people at Fulton County Stadium, a record low for the franchise. Many who did come to the ballpark in those years heckled him. There was real fear that it might have been much worse.

In September 1998, Aaron watched wistfully as Mark McGwire crossed home plate following his record-breaking 62nd home run and hugged his son, Matthew, dressed in a Cardinals uniform as a team batboy. When Aaron hit 715, his daughter, Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, had to watch on television while under the protection of FBI agents because of a kidnapping plot against her. His mother, Estella, was at the game and threw a hug around her son after he crossed home plate. It seemed a touching scene, though the truth, she later explained, was that she had done so out of fear that Hank might be assassinated by someone in the crowd. The first words spoken into the stadium microphone by the new home run king were these: "Thank God it's over."


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