Baseball's Chasm between Heroes

Article excerpt

Tonight, in the classic midsummer pause to honor the heroes of the national pastime, young men will line up along perpendicular chalk lines, flanking a diamond that has long captured the nation's dreams.

"American" and "National," their uniforms will say, recalling the admonition of the historian Jacques Barzun: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game ...."

Today the most penetrating reality of the game - more than bloated salaries, sharp inequities dividing rich and poor teams, the relentless sales hustle at the ballpark, and even Mr. Barzun's "mystic nine" in grass - lies in the chasm in value between black achievement and white. Fifty-three years after Jackie Robinson carried the aspirations of a people into the center of the nation's culture, white heroes remain, by far, the most fondly revered.

Enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. beneath an arch bearing Barzun's famous words, and witness the throngs of baseball tourists, 99 in 100 white, gazing at trophies encased in glass. On a weekend, you will find it hard to move - unless you are visiting the exhibit called "Pride and Passion: The African American Experience." There, you may find yourself alone.

Move two doors down, to the walk-in mausoleum honoring Babe Ruth. Read about how the mythical Babe lived life large; how he saved the game from scandal and boredom with his walloping home runs. Walk next door, and see how Hank Aaron, a black man who broke the Babe's all-time home-run record despite hate mail and death threats, has been crammed onto a wall. Read nothing of the terrible crucible Mr. Aaron passed through in shattering a myth of white superiority, risking his life for something larger than baseball; learn nothing of the way his dignified struggle transcended sport, to the deeper annals of American heroism.

Stand before the two glass cases honoring latter day home-run heroes, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Mr. McGwire, who hit four home runs more than Mr. Sosa in the famous chase of 1998, enjoys a tribute twice as large; his 70th home-run ball fetched 30 times more at auction than Sosa's 66th, and nearly four times that of Aaron's final-career homer, which represents the most stunning record in baseball history.

This reality reflects the attitudes of many fans, who are more comfortable when blacks, like Hollywood sidekicks, blow kisses to the cameras as contented number twos. When a white icon is threatened, it's often another matter.

When Aaron broke Ruth's record, and spoke out about what he endured, amnesia settled upon white fans and the baseball establishment; Aaron's accomplishment, and the toll it took,

When Barzun wrote his famous words in 1954, baseball was at the heart of America; its playing field a metaphor for the nation. …