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The People's King

Henry Aaron is about to be displaced from his spot atop the alltime home run list, but 755 will endure as one of baseball's magical numbers

Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 1:05PM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 2:44PM
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Aaron considered his career record for total bases, and not the
home run mark, the best measure of him as a ballplayer.
Aaron considered his career record for total bases, and not the home run mark, the best measure of him as a ballplayer.
John G. Zimmerman/SI

In a black sea of hot asphalt, hard by Area 10 of the Turner Field parking lot, a fittingly modest monument to a people's king rises from rivulets of Georgia heat. On this spot, in what was the Braves' bullpen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, landed the 715th home run in the career of Henry Louis Aaron. Here too stand facsimiles of the outfield fence and the bullpen wall, on which there is a sign that makes no mention of the major league home run record or Babe Ruth, whose 53-year claim as the alltime home run king passed that night to a poor dry-dock laborer's son. Or as Vin Scully so eloquently told his radio listeners, "A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an alltime baseball idol."

APRIL 8, 1974

The inscription is enough. The significance of the home run will be understood, even -- no, wait, especially -- in the coming days and beyond when Aaron, who retired two years later with 755 home runs, no longer owns the record. In simple mathematical terms Barry Bonds will have outhomered Aaron and every other player who has swung a bat in the majors. Everything else about the new record, however, dissolves into the murkiness of interpretation. Bonds's ties to BALCO, the steroid factory busted by the feds, and Greg Anderson, his convicted, incarcerated friend and onetime personal trainer, have created the ugly impression of a bastard prince without true claim to the throne.

Bonds's ascent to 756 has been (outside of his safe house in San Francisco) not only a joyless affair but, far worse for baseball, a public exercise in mockery and ridicule, with CHEATER banners, oversized syringes and "ster-roids" chants the de rigueur accoutrements of a traveling freak show. The commissioner of baseball doesn't want to personally witness the record-breaking home run (Bud Selig still hasn't said whether he'll be in attendance), and Aaron has been adamant in his refusal to be there. Corporate America too wants nothing to do with it, and a majority of fans (52%, according to a May poll by ABC News and ESPN) are rooting against Bonds.

Against that backdrop, Aaron and 755 have acquired the immutability of granite. It may have taken setting the record for Aaron, who was a consummate ballplayer and remains a quiet gentleman with a fierce social conscience, to be properly noticed. As he wrote in his 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, with Lonnie Wheeler, "The most basic motivation was the pure ambition to break such an important and long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that I thought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows."

Thirty-three years later it may take losing the record for Aaron to be sufficiently appreciated. Like Roger Bannister and the sub-four-minute mile, Bob Beamon and 29.2 feet, and Roger Maris and 61, Aaron and 755 are partners in posterity, not by defying belief, as Bonds has done, but by encouraging it. Aaron's record may be broken by Bonds, but it won't be eclipsed.

"I guess," says Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, "you can call him the people's home run king."


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