Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Henry Aaron's Baseball Tale Is One That Is Worth Retelling

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Henry Aaron's Baseball Tale Is One That Is Worth Retelling

Article excerpt

During a recent spring-training game between a team of replacement New York Mets and players masquerading as New York Yankees, at a time when it still seemed possible that the regular season was going to start with imposters in big-league uniforms, a friend stated what for him was the crying shame of the situation. His major objection wasn't moral, ethical or even practical. It was alphabetical.

With the first pitch of a sham season, more than 700 ill-qualified individuals were going to be certified as major-leaguers. Steve Wulf's concern was that a prospective interloper might be named Aardvark or Aaplegate or Aabott, that one of the frauds might go to the top of the batting order in the Baseball Encyclopedia. For all its flaws, argued the man who has managed to retain his love of the game through stints at Sports Illustrated and now Time, there is at least one baseball happenstance so perfect it had to be preordained. "When you open the book," he noted, "the first name you see is Henry Aaron."

In a perfect world, of course, that's the way it would remain forever. Not just because Aaron holds the career record for home runs but because of the kind of player he was. For more than two decades, he was excellence personified, a shining example of the best baseball has to offer.

And yet he was never embraced by the American public in the manner of Babe Ruth, whose record he surpassed, or even in the manner of such contemporaries as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. There were several reasons. He played for teams in Milwaukee and Atlanta, neither a media capital. And he performed with such efficiency of motion that he made everything appear easy.

"You can't exactly say he has a flair for the dramatic," Braves general manager Paul Richards said as Aaron was gearing for the record assault. The man conceded as much. "I can't fly out from under my cap or break my neck when I know the ball is 10 rows back in the seats," he said.

There was a more obvious explanation for his failure to become a cultural icon, for his lack of acceptance in the commercial market, one Aaron grew less reluctant to discuss late in his career. "Being black had a little to do with it," he said two years before hitting his 715th home run. "If someone asked one of these companies in New York who he would rather have, Henry Aaron or Tom Seaver, nine out of 10 would say Tom Seaver. And that's not knocking Tom. He's a friend of mine."

Although he could be outspoken, he certainly wasn't as vocal about injustice as Jackie Robinson. Aaron campaigned to have a black man hired as a major-league manager nine years before Frank Robinson received the opportunity in 1975. April 4, 1974, the day Aaron tied Ruth's record of 714, marked the sixth anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, and he asked the Cincinnati Reds to include a moment of silence in the Opening Day ceremonies at Riverfront Stadium. …

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