Justice for the Negro Leagues Will Mean More Than Just StatsBreaking News
tags: civil rights, baseball, Sports History, Negro Leagues, Hank Aaron, Josh Gibson
Henry Aaron, who died in January, will forever cast a long shadow over Major League Baseball. It was Aaron, of course, who broke Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs on April 8, 1974, on his way to finishing with 755 after 23 seasons in the majors. In that time, he drove in more runs and amassed more total bases than anyone else ever has. He ranks fourth all-time in runs created and third all-time in hits. Aficionados of the counting stats — the ones you can add to, one at a time, like hits, home runs, R.B.I.s — like to recite how you can discount all of Aaron’s home runs and he would still have more than 3,000 hits. Proponents of advanced statistics turn to other measures of Aaron’s greatness, such as wins above replacement: According to the essential online database Baseball Reference, if you consider that 19,902 players have played in Major League Baseball through its 150 years — I’m including the National Association, from 1871 to 1875 — Aaron scores higher than 19,895 of them.
But numbers tell only part of the story. Players will come along and surpass Aaron, statistically speaking, at least — Barry Bonds already did, with his 762 home runs (although the persistent specter of doping makes his home-run crown ring hollow). And yet, here was a player mined from the platinum ore nestled deep into the bedrock of the history of Black baseball: Aaron was the last full-time major-league ballplayer to first make his mark in the Negro leagues — and the last Negro-league ballplayer ever to start in a major-league game.
Henry Aaron is where statistics and society meet. As Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s career home-run total, he received constant threats to his life as well as to the lives of his family. His journey to home run No. 715 was a miserable one for him. As he pursued Ruth’s record, he was pursued by mail, much of it vicious. And that’s how Aaron unexpectedly toppled yet another record, the Guinness world record for the most fan mail received in one year by a private citizen: 900,000 letters. About a third of them, Guinness notes, “were letters of hate engendered by his bettering of Babe Ruth’s career record for ‘home runs.’” When Babe Ruth hit his final home run, in 1935, Henry Aaron was a year old. No Black ballplayer had played in what were considered the major leagues in 51 years.
Most players live off their milestone moments, but Aaron always seemed to have simply survived his. It is chiseled into baseball lore: a classic Aaron swing at an Al Downing high fastball in the fourth inning on that warm and cloudy early-spring night in Atlanta. When officials paused the game to celebrate the historic occasion, Aaron stood before a microphone and said, “I just thank God it’s all over.” Who could blame him?
A month earlier, as the inevitability of breaking Ruth’s record was sinking in for him and the nation, an essay by Aaron appeared in papers across the country: “The Babe is a legend now,” he wrote. “He created more excitement than any player who ever lived. What I find so hard to believe is that Hank Aaron, a nobody from Mobile, Alabama, is the first player in 40 years to challenge that home-run record. How did it come about?” Reflective sentences in the third person usually obscure or repress something. The “aw shucks” of Aaron’s line rises in a bubble only to be popped by the pointed question that follows: How did it come about? The question seems rhetorical, but it is intended for us.