Was the Hostility Hank Aaron Faced Amplified by His Playing for Small-Market Teams?

Willie Mays Likely Wouldn’t Have Faced Backlash Had He Broken Babe Ruth’s Career Home Run Record

On Opening Day 1974, Hank Aaron was on the verge of breaking the greatest record in baseball history, Babe Ruth’s career record for most home runs. Until 1961, Ruth’s records also had included most home runs in a single season — and most scoreless innings pitched in the World Series. The teenaged George Herman Ruth started out with the Boston Red Sox as a Hall of Fame-bound left handed pitcher.

Hall of Fame Plaque, Cooperstown, NY

Hank Aaron was the perfect player to break the record, as when his career numbers were totaled — aside from pitching — they equaled or exceeded the tremendous stats ran up by the legendary Babe. One has to ask, was the reason Hank Aaron faced so much hostility in the 1973–74 offseason, when he was one home run shy of the record, because — unlike Babe Ruth, who played in New York City as it was morphing from the greatest city (and media market) in America to the capital of the world, he played in two small markets (Milwaukee and the Atlanta of the mid-1960s-mid-’70s).

By the time Hank Aaron died at the beginning of 2021, he was rightly recognized as one of the handful of players who can be considered “Greatest Player Ever.” It is arguable that Aaron, in the Winter of 1973–74, wasn’t as well known as his great contemporary, Willie Mays.

It is my belief that if Willie Mays had broken the record, it would not have engendered the same level of hostility faced by Hank Aaron. Then again, Aaron’s ordeal — something The Say Hey Kid may have experienced in kind but not degree, due to his greater celebrity — was a significant moment in this country’s evolution of civil rights for African Americans.

Babe Ruth of the 1920s and early ’30s was a cultural colossus. The ordeal of Hank Aaron as he surpassed The Sultan of Swap made his a colossus of American culture, too.

RUTHSRECORD

Hank Aaron’s quest to break what sabermetrician Bill James once called RUTHSRECORD (his home run crowns) engendered a backlash by white racists after he ended the 1973 season with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth’s record 714. Aaron’s Record, when he retired, not only included most home runs in a career, but many other major league crowns, including career runs scored (tied with Babe Ruth at 2,174), runs batted in (his 2,297 breaking RUTHSRECORD 2,214, still the second most in baseball history), and total bases — an incredible 6,856, which is 722 more than runner-up Stan Musial.

Babe Ruth in 1915 as a Boston Red Sox pitcher (photo by Underwood & Underwood, Wikipedia Commons)

When it was all over, Hank Aaron had topped the Babe and all-other comers, career-wise, with a vengeance in his 22 years in The Show. Before he moved over to the American League in 1975, the man known as The Hammer had came within 30 hits of Stan Musial’s then-National League record 3,630 at the end of his record breaking ’74 season. With 3,771 career hits, Hank Aaron ranks third, all-time, behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb.

Of his contemporaries, the player who was closest to him in terms of greatness — Willie Mays — ended his own fabled career with 3,283 hits, while Carl Yastrzemski finished with 3,419. Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Roberto Clemente notched 3,023 and 3,000 hits, respectively. Frank Robinson, another all-time great ended a career that included becoming the first player to win MVP awards and both leagues and four World Series appearances with 2,943 hits.

F. Robby’s career peaks equalled those of Hank Aaron, and his career output approximates but does not surpass Aaron’s, though he does share the distinction of being the first African American to manage a Major League Team, if the Negro Leagues are not considered major leagues. But then again, Hank Aaron became the first black man to have a significant job with a big league team.

Death Threats

The media exposure on Henry “Hank” Aaron was enormous, the most he had ever experienced, even having played in two World Series. With the retirement of Willie Mays after the 1973 World Series, Hank Aaron suddenly was the most famous baseball player, outstripping superstars Carl Yasstrzemski and Frank Robinson (Triple Crown winners who had appeared in memorable World Series) and Reggie Jackson (1973 American League MVP and member of Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s mini-dynasty that racked up its second straight World Series title that year) in terms of notoriety.

Hank Aaron had achieved the fame that few other baseball players had achieved: Notoriety and celebrity outside of the sport itself. He was now facing the attention that Mays and Mickey Mantle had dealt with all their careers, Willie having started his great career in New York City before the Giants moved West, and Mantle playing for the greatest sports dynasty in history, the New York Yankees.

By contrast, Aaron had played his career in Milwaukee and Atlanta, two “small market” teams (although the Braves, after moving to the Midwest from Boston, racked up the highest attendance figures in baseball for several years). Whereas Willie Mays had appeared in four World Series over three decades (1951, ’54, 1962 and 1973), Hank Aaron had appeared in only two World Series (1957 and ’58) and the 1969 playoffs, where the Braves lost tot the Miracle Mets of “Tom Terrific” Seaver. (From 1951 through 1964, Mickey Mantle appeared on 12 pennant winners and seven World Series championship teams with the Yankees.)

Always underrated in his career (he won only one MVP award), Hank Aaron was now the focus of an entire nation as he waited during the off-season to break the career record of the most famous baseball player ever, Babe Ruth.

With that attention came the hostility of not just racist thugs, who saw RUTHSRECORD as some shibboleth of White Supremacy, but also traditionalists who did not like it one bit that the Great Bambino’s once unassailable record would be broken by Henry Aaron of Atlanta. Then there were others who still revered the Celebrity Colossus that was Babe Ruth, and just plain wanted his record to stand. (Babe’s widow was not one of those, and publicly supported Hank’s quest for homer 715 and the career home run record.)

Setting Records

Of the man whose name will forever be entwined with Hank Aaron’s, The Babe finished out his string with 2,873 hits, 2,214 RBI and 5,793 total bases. The Babe had been given a title of Vice President with the Boston Braves, his last team, but it was a job with no responsibilities. It was the kind of job that Hank Aaron refused to take, and in consequence, was given an executive job with the Atlanta Braves after he retired with real responsibilities.

Babe Ruth made his name — he was so well-known globally, that Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal taunted American Marines with “F#@% Babe Ruth!” — in New York City during the Roaring Twenties, a time when “Gotham” took over as the most important city in the world from London in the post-World War One period. The newspaper reached its zenith during the Twenties, while radio became a major media outlet, with New York at its heart. Babe Ruth starred in movies, an industry that started in the New York area but whose production side had moved west to Los Angeles, as the Brooklyn Dodgers later would.

Babe Ruth set career marks for home runs in the 1920s. He became the career leader in 1921, after surpassing Roger Connor’s career mark of 138. It can be said that with his revolutionary swing, featuring an uppercut and a lack of fear of striking out, Babe Ruth invented the home run, with all of America watching, care of the new mass media.

While still with the Boston Red Sox, he set the single season record for homers in 1919, with 29. Moving to the New York Yankees, the following year, he became the first person to break the 30 homer 40 homer and 50 homer plateau, when he launched 54 circuit clouts. It was a record that stood exactly one year, when he bashed 59 dingers in 1921. Six years later, playing for a Yankees team some consider the greatest ever, he pushed the record to 60.

Babe Ruth’s hitting style was adopted by many, and many players had seasons that came close to Ruth in productivity. Hack Wilson and Jimmy Foxx became the next players to hit 50 home runs in season, with Foxx coming within in two of Ruth’s Record in 1931, and Hank Greenberg matching Foxx’s 58 dingers in 1938. It’s just that nobody managed to play at that level as long as Ruth did.

Babe Ruth was a larger than life character, an American grotesque, part Paul Bunyan and part Diamond Jim Brady. He relished being a celebrity, and helped define what a modern celebrity was.

Hank Aaron never reached the heights of a Ruthian season: Ruth’s record-breaking 54 homers in 1920 were more than the total of every other team in baseball except for the Philadelphia Phillies, which racked up 64, and were managed by six-time home run champ Gavvy Cravath, whose single season best was 24 dingers in 1915, and had 119 for his career. Cravath’s 1915 Phillies, which featured Hall of Fame pitchers Pete Alexander and Eppa Rixley and Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft, lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. That was the year BoSox manager Bill Carrigan sat out his ace rookie left hander, who had a record of 18–8 and would win an ERA title that next year, letting him appear in only one game as a pinch hitter. The following year, Babe Ruth went 23–9 and won the ERA title, starting his record streak of scoreless innings pitched in the World Series. (That record, which extended from 1916 to the 1918 Fall Classic, would be broken like another famous RUTHRECORD in 1961.)

Hank Aaron never out-homered most of the other baseball teams or notch two twenty win seasons as a pitcher, but he did play at a high level for an incredibly long period of time. In the end, he achieved career totals that matched and in many ways surpassed The Babe’s legendary reign as Baseball’s Greatest Player, a reputation established when baseball was undisputedly America’s Favorite Past Time, before the advent of television as the greatest mass market media machine. Football-friendly TV made the Sunday afternoon and Monday night frolics on the professional gridiron the #1 spectator sport in America by the mid-1960s.

In Michael Carlson’s obituary of Hank Aaron in The Guardian, he wrote, “He never relished playing the hero, but also never shied away from the role. The reticence and humility of “The Dignified Slugger from Mobile,” as conservative columnist and baseball fan George Will called him, did not make him the likely hero that America demanded for breaking the record of one of the legendary figures in American history.

TV — the arbiter of celebrity — was a “cool medium” according to Marshall McLuhan. Speaking of politicians on television in the 1960s, McLuhan said the medium demanded “…cool, low-definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification.”

Unlike The Babe’s boisterous, baroque personality, Jazz Age perfection for print and silent newsreels, when larger than life exploits could be relayed through pictures and second-hand accounts via journalists and radio broadcasters and not overwhelm the media consumer, Hank Aaron had a cool personality. What he lacked was the major media market that Babe Ruth and later Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays had enjoyed in New York.

Breaking RUTHSRECORD

RUTHSRECORD was a prodigious one, and included the record for runs scored in a career, which Hank Aaron would tie but not surpass, and RBI, which he did. But for those casual fans not attuned to “Inside Baseball” and the public at large, RUTHSRECORD basically involved one category, Home Runs, in two categories: Most home runs in a season, and most home runs in a career.

RUTHSRECORD Part 1 was broken in 1961 by Roger 61* Maris, an asterisk-amended season the playing out of which proved far more controversial than Hank Aaron’s smashing of RUTHSRECORD Part 2. And that is an instructive year to understand the hostility directed towards Hank Aaron, the hostility that was NOT generated by uncouth, unthinking racism. For not all of those hostile to Hank Aaron’s shattering of what remained of Babe Ruth’s home run record were racist. They just were opposed to iconoclasts, and as the 1974 season loomed in the Church of Baseball, Hank Aaron was about to replace Roger 61* Maris as Iconoclast-in-Chief, with no asterisk.

RUTHSRECORD Part 2 was so well-known and revered in the public at large, Jack Webb, the originator and star of the most popular show in the 1950s that didn’t star Lucille Ball, Dragnet, reportedly based his character Sergeant Joe Friday’s L.A.P.D. badge number on it: 714.

Joe Friday’s Badge # on “Dragnet” reportedly was Jack Webb’s homage to RUTHSRECORD

It is my belief that if Willie Mays had broken the then-unbroken RUTHSRECORD of 714 career home runs in 1972 or ’73, it would have been a cause for celebration for most Americans, outside of the knuckle-dragging racists. I ask the reader to think of Hank Aaron as being analogous to Roger Maris, although Aaron is an all-time great.

Not only did Hammering Hank break RUTHSRECORD (Part 2), he tied The Bambino’s record of 2,174 runs scored! Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth were brothers — with the proviso that Hank never won 24 games as a pitcher or an ERA title, as the Babe did. (Then again, neither did Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, let alone Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio or Ty Cobb. When Yankee hurler Whitey Ford surpassed Babe Ruth’s World Series pitching record for scoreless innings in 1961, he told the press, “It’s been a bad year for The Babe.”)

Ending the season with 713 career home runs meant a half-year long layoff before the the launch of the 1974 season, when “Hammering Hank” — who had poled 40 circuit clouts in ’73 — would surely tie and then surpass Ruth, possibly on Opening Day.

That threat was so real, the Atlanta Braves owners wanted the record broken in Atlanta. When it was announced that Hank Aaron would sit out the first three games of the ‘74 season, to be held on the road, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Aaron to play in at least two of the three game set against the Cincinnati Reds, which for many years, hosted the first Opening Game in major league baseball, due to the misperception that the franchise was the oldest in league history.

It was not: The Braves were. Because of that quirk in misbegotten history, and Kuhn’s ukase, Hank Aaron tied RUTHSRECORD by hitting his 714th home run at Riverfront Stadium on Opening Day. He didn’t hit any more homers in Cincinnati, and it was before a record crowd at Atlanta Stadium that he set AARONSRECORD, which stood at 755 when he retired in 1976, and may now be 760, if post-1950 Negro League statistics are factored in.*

Doppelgänger

In the half-year layoff between the 1973 and ’74 season, the legend of Hank Aaron was forged. Inside the crucible of celebrity, that legend was forged with the hammer of the American mass media machine.

Long before he fell into the crucible, #44 Hank Aaron had won a reputation among baseball fans — not just the insiders — for being an all-time baseball great, to be spoken of in the same terms as the man whose record he would surpass, as well as his great contemporaries Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Aaron played at a level matched by very few, such as all-time greats Ty Cobb, Jimmie Fox, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson — and, poignantly, Josh Gibson, whose true greatness we’ll never now, due to the systemic racism that barred him from playing in the Major Leagues.

Like Willie Mays, the man who claims the title of Greatest Living Player and who is Aaron’s doppelgänger in terms of not just greatness of reputation but achievement on the field, Hank Aaron started out in the Negro Leagues. The 18-year-old Aaron played part of the 1952 season before being signed by Boston Braves scout Ed Scott, an African American. Bought from the Clowns for $8,000, Scott considered it as steal, as Aaron in his opinion was a $100,000 a year talent.*

The two baseball players are near twins, with identical careers, except that Mays exceeded Aaron — himself a Gold Glove winner in right field —on defense, racking up 12 Gold Gloves and establishing his reputation as the greatest center fielder since Joe DiMaggio.

In fact, Mays surpassed the legendary DiMaggio in becoming the Gold Standard of center fielders. Willie Mays also hit 660 home runs and likely would have been the first to break RUTHSTRECORD.

It is my belief that if Willie Mays had broken RUTHSRECORD, with his greater celebrity, he would not have been subjected to the same level of hostility as Hank Aaron encountered. Everyone in America knew who Willie Mays was in 1972 and ’73, when Willie himself might have broken the record, if he had not been drafted during the Korean War.

Willie Mays was the type of person who was supposed to break such records. A larger than life figure, known and loved by the public at large. Hank Aaron just wasn’t as well-known by John Q. Public. The Hammer also had a stoical personality, unlike the ebullient “Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays.

That stoicism served Hank Aaron well, as his legend was forged, and his achievement became a milestone in civil rights history, almost as significant as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the “color bar” in 1947. For Aaron who leverage his new super-celebrity status to become the first African American baseball executive with significant managerial duties, after his career came to a close after America’s Bicentennial Year, 1976.

What If? Department

Willie Mays made The Show in 1951, in a Rookie of the Year Award-winning season in which he helped take the Giants to the World Series. The Say Hey Kid clouted 20 homers in his debut season.

The Giants failed to repeat in 1952 as Willie was drafted by the U.S. Army. There was a war going on in Korea, that already had claimed Ted Williams, an all-time great whose five years in military service in the prime of life (1943–45; 1951–53) likely cost him his shot at breaking RUTHSRECORD.

Early in the ’52 season, Willie hit four homers in the 34 games he appeared in for the “Gi’nts” (a nickname based on a New York accent beloved by Gotham’s tabloid press — those were different times). Once he reported for induction, the team’s fate was sealed. It would not repeat as National League champion in the years Willie Mays was a solider.

What if? Willie Mays likely would have surpassed his total of 20 that year, if he had played a full season. Willie missed the entire 1953 season, and when he returned in 1954, he took the Gi’nts all the way to the World’s Championship with an MVP season that saw him win a batting tile and hit 41 homers.

In the great “What If?” contests that are part of Baseball Crankdom***, one asks “What If Willie Mays Hadn’t Been Drafted?” One can see that Willie likely would have equaled if not surpassed his rookie total of 20 taters. Then, in 1953, he might have hit 40, a threshold he surpassed six times in his career. (By the time Aaron was being considered for the draft, the Korean War had ended and the Braves organization managed to convince Hank’s local draft board that the country was better served with him in major league baseball.)

Until the PEDs era that made nonsense of well established records by players too old to achieve such numbers without the help of black market pharmaceuticals, Willie Mays was one of only a five players to hit 50 homers in two seasons, which he first did in 1955 and repeated 10 years later. So, 40 home runs in 1953 was well within probability for Mays, the all-time great who many claim is Baseball’s Greatest Living Player, even when Hank Aaron was alive.

Forty plus sixteen would have put Willie Mays at 716, two more than RUTHSRECORD.

Willie Mays retired at the end of the 1973 season, his only season when he didn’t go yard at least once. The Say Hey Kid ended his career appearing in the World Series with the New York Mets, having returned to the city that made him a superstar, playing out his string in Queens. (The fabled ballyard Willie had broken in at on Coogan’s Bluff had been torn down, and a public housing project bearing his name had replaced it. )

In 1974, it could have been MAYSRECORD that Hank Aaron broke.

The question I bring up is this: If it had been Willie Mays, who hit eight homers (career numbers 653 through 660) for the New York Mets after being traded by the San Francisco Giants on May 11th, 1972 for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000, would America have embraced him for surpassing Babe Ruth? For breaking RUTHSRECORD?

I believe they would have. For Willie Mays was not only, arguably, the most famous of baseball players of his time, he was one of the most famous Americans, known to people who weren’t baseball fans. Like Babe Ruth himself, Willie Mays was one of a handful of athletes who were as famous as a movie star, or (infamous) as a politician.

In his time, Willie Mays’ celebrity was surpassed by only one other athlete, the player that he was measured by, when they were contemporaries — Mickey Mantle.

Mantle was a white man, a blonde-haired good-looking WASP who had the privilege of playing on the third of the great Yankees dynasties in the premier media center of the world. New York City was a stage Willie shared with Mickey until the Giants left their home in Coogan’s Bluff near the Harlem River for Baghdad by the Bay (San Francisco) after the 1957 season.

Mantle’s injuries prematurely ended his genius as a player by 1965, the year the Yankees great dynasty of 1949–64 was over. Coming up in 1951 with the number 6 on his back, #7 Mickey Mantle had appeared on all but two of the teams that racked up 14 pennants and nine World Series victories in 16 years. Mickey sported seven championship rings to go along with this three Most Valuable Player awards, the first that came in 1956, the year he won the Triple Crown (tops in hitting, home runs and runs batted in).

Both came up in 1951. Both were the outstanding centerfielders of their league, in their times, Willie being pitched a above The Mick as a fielder, but generally seen as equals as hitters. The sad end of Mantle’s career, as he was hobbled by injuries, was one reason that — after the death of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays could lay claim to the title Greatest Living Baseball Player. Many observers would have granted him that title already, by the time his career ended with the 1973 World Series.

As rookies, Mays and Mantle matched up in the World Series in 1951 and a decade later, in 1962, the year Mantle won his third — and last — MVP in a season limited to 123 games. The Yankees’ Dynasty won its last World Championship when Mays Giants succumbed to Mantle’s Yankees in seven games.

That was the season that The Mick won his first — and only — Gold Glove Award, an honor that started in 1957. Willie Mays had won the National League Gold Glove Award that inaugural year, and picked up #6 in 1962, as he racked up an even dozen straight Gold Gloves.

Mickey Mantle would play in two more World Series, two losing efforts against the Dodgers of L.A. in 1963 and Lou Brock’s emerging Cardinals dynasty in 1964.

Mickey had an off-year in 1963, but had a comeback in 1964, going .303/35/111 with a league-leading OPS of 1.015 in the ’64 season. He appeared in the last of his 14 World Series that October, when the Yankees lost to the Cardinals team featuring future Hall of Famers Loy Brock, Bob Gibson. Mickey’s numbers were good enough to place him #2 in the MVP voting, losing out to Brooks Robinson, who in the field, was to third base what Willie Mays was to center.

In 1965, Mantle became the first winner of the first Hutch Award (a de facto comeback player of the year prize for The Mick but an award given to exemplify the fighting spirit of former manager Fred Hutchison). But in that season, when the Yankees finished sixth in a 10-team league with their first losing record, his numbers declined to .255/19/46 with .831. The Mick was not the Mick anymore.

By 1965, Mantle and the mid-century Yankees Dynasty were through. The losing record was the first since 1925, when Babe Ruth appeared in less than 98 games.* The collapse of the Yankees happened in the year Willie Mays hit 50 homers for the second time in his career, a feat matched by Mantle, Jimmy Fox and Ralph Kiner until the PEDS era — Ruth had four 50 homer seasons, including breaking his own record of 59 with 60 homers n 1927).

Still the star of the San Francisco Giants, along with fellow future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, Willie won his second Most Valuable Player Award. In ‘65, the Giants took the Los Angeles Dodgers down to the wire, coming up two games short of the pennant.

Lacking heavy hitters of the caliber of Mays but possessed of great pitching, the Dodgers won the World Series, despite their star left-hander, a 26 game winner who happened to be Jewish, refusing to start Game One of the World Series as it fell on Yom Kippur. That was the year that Sandy Koufax became, arguably, the most famous man in baseball —as famous as Willie and the Mick as his notoriety became larger than just inside baseball.

Wille Mays had his last superior season in 1966, when he garnered enough MVP votes to rank #3. In a time now known by many as “The Second Dead Ball Era” in which Carl Yasztremski would win an American League batting title in 1968 with a .301 average, Mays remained an effective player through the 1971 season, when — for the first time — he led the league in bases on balls with 112 and On Base Percentage with .425. Mickey Mantle, by contrast, retired during Spring Training of 1969 as he wasn’t Mickey Mantle anymore.

And Hank Aaron was still a great offensive player, hitting a career best 47 home runs in 1971 and leading the major leagues with a .669 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.079. He hit 34 homers the following year and racked up his eight — and last — 40 homer season in 1973.

In 1974, of the great players that came up in the early to mid 1950s, only Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were left. F Robby, who would go on to become the first African American manager in Major League Baseball in 1975, was at the end of his brilliant career. He had one more productive season in ‘74, though hardly up to the standards of his career, which ended the following year.

But in 1974, it was Hank Aaron who rewrote baseball history.

“A Bad Year for The Babe”

I was born right at the end of the 1950s, and it seems like I’ve known about Babe Ruth forever, just as JFK has been part of my life from the beginning.

I can remember JFK alive and I remember the funeral, but I do not remember his death. For years, since all Baby Boomers used the memory of JFK’s death as a touchstone of memory, I wondered why I could not remember him being assassinated, as it was all over TV. I don’t believe in blackouts, but wondered if I blacked it out. When I was much older, I realized: Of course, my mother had protected me from the news. (I had loved JFK as a child, seeing him as kind of a second father, in the same way as demented adults embrace Donald Trump.)

This came decades after I realized that the reason I had known of Babe Ruth from the beginning was that Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record on the first day of October, my birth month, in 1961. I was as close to two years old as you could get without actually being two.

I became a rabid Red Sox fan in The Impossible Dream Year of 1967, and insist that Yaz is the greatest of all Red Sox players, but before then, I liked the New York Yankees. Before Yaz, there was Mickey Mantle.

And why not? Mickey’s Yanks notched five straight pennants (which took you straight to the World Series with no detours through playoffs) from October 1960 through October 1964. This meant that in a house that still was dominated by a nuclear family in which a father was patriarch, and in which the family was dominated by a tube in the den (often renamed the “TV Room”), Mickey and the Yanks were featured on one of three channels (which was all most TVs in most markets in the US could get — UHF took off only after JFK himself insisted on legislation mandating that TV set makers put a second dial for UHF stations on their product). The non-viewing of the World Series with Mick’s Yanks actually is a plot point in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I knew of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, along with JFK, as a small boy. I did not know of Roger Maris until I was a teenager.

The thing was, part of Maris’ tragedy was that the public and its surrogate weren’t mad that the first part of RUTHSRECORD (single season most home runs) was going to be bested, but that it wasn’t going to be surpassed by Mickey Mantle, the Golden Boy not only of Yankees fans, but of all baseball fans, and indeed, America. Mickey Mantle was HUGE, and appeared in many advertisements, and appeared on the TV on shows not dealing with sports.

Mickey was toted as the person to beat RUTHSRECORD (Part 1) in 1961, having already won back-to-back MVP awards in 1956 and ’57, three home run titles (the last in 1960) and the Triple Crown.

In his 1956 Triple Crown year, #7 The Mick had hit 52 taters. HE WAS THE MAN, the chosen one, to break RUTHSRECORD. And he gave it a shot, finishing with a career best 54 homers while equaling his career best showing of 153 games played, established the preceding year.

If Mickey Mantle had broken Ruth’s record, there would have been no hubub about it in 1961. There would have been no asterisk, even if Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had NOT been The Babe’s ghostwriter. Because Mickey Mantle was worthy. Roger Maris, a fine outfielder but journeyman player who took advantage of the short right porch built for The Babe at Yankee Stadium (The House That Ruth Built — the biggest baseball stadium of its time, financed by the money generated by Ruth’s great celebrity fueled by his athletic prowess). Coming over from the Kansas City Athletics, which because of interlocking ownerships (the man who owned the KC A’s had the mortgage on Yankee Stadium), served as a major league level unofficial minor league team for The Yanks) adjusted his swing, pulled the ball down the right field line, and became a major home run hitter.

In 1960, Roger Maris hit 39 homers, second only to The Micke’s forty. For that feat, he won the first of his two consecutive MVP awards, the breaking of RUTHSRECORD (Part 1) garnering him his second.

Maris suffered a backlash from Ruth fans and purists, a hostility that Mickey Mantle would not have felt. I believe that if the far better know Willie Mays had broken RUTHSRECORD (Part 2) sometime in 1972 or ’73 (which then when have been almost immediately surpassed by Hank Aaron), he would not have received the bull — — that Aaron did.

And that is unfair, as Hank Aaron was Willie’s equal — the equal of Babe Ruth and any other man who played the game — but having played in small markets, he lacked the celebrity — and thus an imaginary gravitas — that should go along with the man who broke RUTHSRECORD. Gravitas in the sense of weight, of stature.

It was just ignorance, as Henry “Hank” Aaron was the epitome of gravitas, in sports and society at large. For gravitas, one of the Roman virtues, also entails dignity and seriousness of manner.

In many ways, Hank Aaron was the ideal man to break RUTHSRECORD. For it proved to be a pivotal moment in American history, which forced Americans to confront themselves, and their ideas not just of race, but of right and wrong. Issues that might not have been raised if Willie Mays, or Ted Williams — (who surely would have come close to matching Willie’s career total of 660 home runs and may have challenged RUTHSRECORD (Part 2) had he not lost five prime years to military service — had broken the record first.

NOTES

*After transitioning from a superlative pitcher with two 20-game win seasons and an ERA title to a position player in 1919, the 1925 season was the first time Babe appeared in less 100 games, until 1935, his last year in the Big Leagues. Having been released by the Yankees during Spring Training, The fabled Sultan of Swat was picked up by the Boston Braves. Babe called it a career on June 2nd, retiring exactly a week after he hit three home runs — #712, 713 & 714 — in a game that the last-place Braves lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, despite the Babe’s heroics.

Ruth’s failure to suit up for 100+ games in 1925 was the result of the famous “Bellyache Heard ‘Round the World” attributed to overconsumption of hot dogs. When The Babe collapsed during spring training, his death was erroneously reported in papers in the United Kingdom and Canada.)

**“Crank” was one of the original nicknames for baseball fan, around the turn of the 19th into the 20th Century.

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