“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
The stunning fact about Aaron’s assault on The Babe was that he came on so suddenly. For years, Willie Mays was the leading pretender to the throne. Willie made a hard run for it until time sent its battalions up against his flesh. Those of us who loved Willie watched our hero backed against the outfield wall by the caprices of old age, by that semi-death of extraordinary athletes who dance too long, then stumble home in a last graceless waltz that is the cruelest, most public humiliation of sport. Years ago, the world knew that The Babe was safe from Willie. But in 1971, a 37-year-old man hit 47 home runs and the chase was on again. The next year Aaron hit 34. Last year he hit 40 and at the end of the season was staring eyeball-to-eyeball with Babe Ruth.
…It was…in many ways, one of the most boring sports stories of the century. Every sportswriter in the country searched the rills and slopes of his brain hoping to find the different angle, the fresh approach or a new way of looking at Hank’s assault on Babe Ruth’s record. They asked Hank every conceivable question. They interviewed every person who had known Hank in the past 40 years, from Vic Raschi, who surrendered Hank’s first home run, to Aaron’s daughter, sons, sisters, brothers, mother, father, managers, coaches, players and friends. There was something about the obscenely crowded press conferences with Hank that made a reporter feel like a participant at an orgy. After each game last season, the flock gathered to ask Hank the same watered-down questions and Hank, salivating on cue, would render the same colorless, good-natured answers he had delivered the day before and the day before that. The chase ate up a lot of good words, and left a lot of semi-burned out reporters staring into the outfield lights.
And if you missed it, do yourself a favor and check out Tommy Cragg’s wonderful 2007 piece on Aaron for Slate:
Because he was so outwardly bland in personality and performance, Aaron seemed to take on character only in relation to things people felt strongly about: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, civil rights. On his own he was, and remains, an abstraction, someone whom writers could only explicate with banalities like “dignified.” Our perception of Aaron today stems almost entirely from his pursuit of Ruth’s 714 home runs, in 1973 and 1974, during which time he faced down an assortment of death threats and hate mail. By then, Aaron had shed his reticence and begun to speak out against baseball’s glacial progress on matters of race. Still, very much his own man, he seemed to dismiss some of the loftier interpretations attached to his home-run chase. “The most basic motivation,” he wrote in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, with Lonnie Wheeler, “was the pure ambition to break such an important and long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that I thought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows.”
No matter. Aaron was fashioned into something of a civil rights martyr anyway. “He hammered out home runs in the name of social progress,” Wheeler recently wrote in the Cincinnati Post. And Tom Stanton, in the optimistically titled Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America, dropped what has to be the most unlikely Hank Aaron analogy on record: “[P]erhaps it’s The Exorcist, the period’s biggest movie, that provides a better metaphor for Hank Aaron’s trial. … Hank Aaron lured America’s ugly demons into the light, revealing them to those who imagined them a thing of the past, and in doing so helped exorcise some of them. His ordeal provided a vivid, personal lesson for a generation of children: Racism is wrong.”
Small wonder that, upon eclipsing Ruth, the exorcist told the crowd, “I’d just like to thank God it’s over.”