It is an arc that represents our own lives and triumphs and failures and insecurities. We can grow from childhood to adulthood — or from young adulthood to middle age — during the course of a favorite player’s career. And when he becomes old by baseball standards, we suddenly don’t feel so young ourselves.
As the James Earl Jones character says in the movie “Field of Dreams”: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
All of this came to mind Friday with the death of Hank Aaron at the age of 86.
Playing in the major leagues from 1954-76, Aaron became his sport’s all-time home run king, passing Babe Ruth. And when Barry Bonds passed Aaron’s home run record in 2007, Aaron graciously said that three decades with the record was enough; somebody else should hold it. This, despite widespread speculation that Bonds had used performance-enhancing drugs.
Because Aaron was a Black man chasing the record of the revered Ruth, he was subjected to virulent racism and death threats as the record drew within reach. This, too, is a microcosm of America.
“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” Aaron wrote in a 1991 autobiography. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, playing for the Atlanta Braves. I was 8, and I distinctly remember watching on TV, aware that history was being made but unaware of its social significance. It is only through the passage of time that the implications became clear. And it is only through the passage of time that enormous respect for a dignified and humble baseball hero took root.
As Vin Scully, radio announcer for the opposing Los Angeles Dodgers, described the record: “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
It was, indeed, a great moment for America. At a time when the civil rights movement had made great strides but dreams remained unfulfilled, as they do now, it is impossible to ignore the implications. Aaron had grown up in Alabama, had reached the major leagues and returned to the South in midcareer when the Braves moved there, and had broken the most hallowed record in a sport known as the American Pastime.
The measure of time tells us that was 46 years ago. But occasionally in baseball, time stands still.