Thursday, April 17, 2014

44, 44 and 44

     (By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari Goldstein.)
     Hank Aaron proves we as a nation have advanced not one micromillimeter regarding race relations in at least four decades. But to begin at the beginning as Lewis Carroll advised...
     Four decades ago last April 8th (and I know I'm dating myself here), I was a 15 year-old boy watching the Braves play the Dodgers at the start of the 1974 season. Curt Flood's attempt to free his fellow players from the onerous yoke of the reserve clause was still a fresh wound in the hearts and minds of many who cared about the game. Baseball was changing, painfully as is always the case, not necessarily for the better. And, as usual, it fell to a home run hitter to bring back the love of the game.
     Babe Ruth did it with his astounding feats of hitting starting in 1920, his first season with the Yankees, and the first after the Black Sox scandal. Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, steroids or no, did it again in 1998 during their historic race to break Babe Ruth's other hallowed achievement, the single season home run record of 60 that he'd set in 1927. Between the corruption scandal of 1919 and the bad taste left in the mouths of fans after the 1995 strike, it fell to these men to rehabilitate the game and to remind us what baseball means and represents to Americans.
     Then on April 8th 1974, it was Hank Aaron's turn. He had matched the Babe home run for home run and was poised at 714. The Dodgers #44, Al Downing, threw That Pitch to the Braves' #44 and #715 sailed over the left field wall. You don't need me to tell you it was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, the night when one of the oldest and most cherished records in all of professional sports fell. It had been nearly four decades since the Babe had hit his last home run for that very same franchise.
     We'd heard that Mr. Aaron had received a lot of hate mail and more than his share of death threats as Ruth's record came closer and closer to being broken. In the four decades since, we white people would like to think, we'd moved on to a more tolerant, post-racial America.
     Then Hank Aaron unwittingly disabused us of that ridiculous notion by giving an interview to USA Today in which he said, 
Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.
     Nowhere had Mr. Aaron said the president's critics were racist, although he could have. Hammering Hank, as with every single active African American player (with the exception of Curt Flood) was conspicuously absent during the Civil Rights era. Yet, starting the day after the interview was published, both Aaron and the Braves front office had been inundated with hundreds of pieces of hate mail and, yes, even death threats, for Aaron calling attention to the persistent problem of racism. One ironic fact was never once did Aaron even use the word racism. The other ironic fact is the letters began their slime trail to the Braves front office on Jackie Robinson Day.
     As Bob Nightengale said in the pages of the same paper, "Yes, it was like 1974 all over again."
     Or, with a simple transposition, 1947.
Braves New World
     Luckily for us, the most virulent racists are stupid and predictable, making it effortless to spot them. The problem is knowing what to do with them once they are identified. We've criminalized hate speech but why racism and death threats haven't fallen under those same guidelines is a mystery I'll delve into on another day.
     Typically, much of the hate mail came from the deep south, starting with loyal Braves fans in Atlanta. One vowed to boycott all Braves games until Aaron is fired from his sinecure from the Braves organization. Another who thought enough of Aaron to buy his autobiography when thought of as a safe figurehead threatened to burn the book. Many others were too vile to print word for word.
     And Aaron proved once more an unlikely lightning rod for racism in this country, a man who has no track record for Civil Rights and no interest in racist-baiting, one who intended to spend his golden years as one of baseball's goodwill ambassadors. And then he was uppity enough to give an interview criticising the Republican Party for hamstringing the 44th President on the 40th anniversary of the 715th home run and the shit hit the fan.
     Ironically, if the Babe had been alive in 1974, he would have cheered on Aaron. Ruth had no taste for racism and he'd privately grumbled more than once, after playing the Negro League during pre- and post-season exhibitions, about the unofficial but viciously enforced "gentleman's agreement" that barred black men from playing major league baseball. I believe baseball historian and Ruth biographer Bill Jenkinson has the last word on the matter of Ruth's likely reaction to Aaron breaking his record when he'd written,
How would Babe have handled that episode in 1974 when Henry Aaron was passing him on the all-time home run list? First, Ruth would have been furious with anyone invoking his name to denigrate Aaron in any way. Second, being an unusually natural and honest individual, I don’t think that he would have engaged in the standard disingenuous but politically correct practice of saying that he was happy. My guess is that Babe would have said: “Well, I can’t say that I’m happy about my record being broken. But, if somebody is going to do it, I’m glad that it is a swell fellow like Hank Aaron.” He would have supported Aaron’s efforts without reservation. And here is the heart of the matter: if anybody had tried to harm Henry Aaron because he was breaking the Bambino’s record, he would have had to fight his way past Babe Ruth to do it. On this, I have absolutely no doubt.
     Agreed. Through sheer force of personality and a prodigious natural talent, Babe Ruth rose to become not only one of the greatest athletes of all time but an iconic American hero. It's tempting to say that America loved him so much because he represented the United States of America in every conceivable way. The Babe was, especially in his early years, brash, immature, undisciplined but so personally exceptional he literally and quickly changed a game that's loath to even the slightest change.
     But Ruth will never represent America in its totality because he was simply color-blind. He openly hugged black ballplayers and had good will for all and malice toward none. And one could make a plausible case that, when the Dodgers played the Yankees in the 1947 World Series, he might have rooted for his old ball club but silently cheered on a rookie Dodger player named Robinson who'd just smashed the color barrier six months ago.
     And he more than likely would've cheered the election of the first black president over 60 years later.
     Racism and bigotry is to be found all over the world. But there is a special, stubborn and particularly virulent streak of it that's peculiar to the United States, one that changes even more slowly than the famously conservative game of baseball. At both ends of this 40 year span of time between Aaron's fabled 715th shot and his interview with USA Today, Hammering Hank proves we have advanced not a single Baltimore chop toward racial tolerance.
     And even obliquely referencing racism without actually calling it out becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the Atlanta Braves front office will attest.


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