By T.S. O’Connell
For a guy who was smack dab in the middle of two of the most significant moments in Major League Baseball history, Hank Aaron could be forgiven if he felt like the gods had somehow found a way to rain on his parade each time.
The sentence above is in the past tense, because there isn’t a perfect verb for an ongoing event and, technically speaking, Aaron is now in the middle of Historic Moment No. 2, when Barry Bonds hits home runs Nos. 755 and 756, passing Aaron for the top spot on the all-time rankings. Moment No. 1, of course, was all of 33 years ago when Aaron passed Babe Ruth with home run No. 715.
And while fans can quibble about verb tenses, there’s really no debating the suggestion that “The Hammer” was dealt some difficult cards on both occasions. In 1974, it was the ghost of Babe Ruth and a smattering of racists that combined to make April 8 that year something of a bittersweet event. This time around, it’s the controversial slugger Barry Bonds and the lingering specter of steroids that have joined forces to likely put a damper on the festivities whenever the San Francisco Giant slugger ties and ultimately passes Aaron.
For Aaron, there was a cloud over 1973 and 1974 as he chased Ruth, and what should have been a joyous final lap as a Brave – 12 years in Milwaukee and nine in Atlanta – was marred by death threats and racist hate mail. Though you don’t hear as much about it – and this time it’s a black man chasing another black man’s record – one suspects that Bonds probably gets some of that hateful treatment as well.
Aaron understands what it’s like to have some fans rooting against him, and while he reportedly does not intend to be present as his record is tied and ultimately falls, he’s hasn’t joined the ranks of Barry detractors. “I’ve always said that records are made to be broken. I’ve held that record long enough, so that it doesn’t bother me one bit,” Aaron said in a Sports Collectors Digest interview.
“That was the same thing that happened when I was approaching the record,” Aaron said in response to a question about some fans who don’t want Bonds to break his record. “When I was challenging Ruth, there were people who told me they didn’t want me to break (the record), and this is the same thing. Now, a lot of fans tell me they don’t want Bonds to break my record, because I think they identify with me,” he added.
I am convinced Aaron was simply being gracious in equating his 1973-74 ordeal to what Bonds faces these days, since race was such a key element to the fans’ ire 33 years ago. There wouldn’t seem to be an overriding racial issue this time, unless somebody wanted to contend that Bonds’ difficult relationship with the press might somehow be less strained if he were white.
“There’s no question that it’s a different situation, but still it’s a record, it’s a baseball record, and I look at it as, ‘No matter what happens, I’ve had it long enough.’”
But no matter how you phrase it, Aaron and one of his oldest friends, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, find themselves in a tough spot as Bonds eyes baseball’s most revered record. If more irony were needed in this case, there’s also the memory that Aaron himself had been disappointed that then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hadn’t been present for No. 715 in Atanta way back when.
Aaron also responded to a question about whether the passage of more than three decades had given the American public any greater understanding of all the things that he endured as he chased and ultimately passed The Babe. “I think they have some, but as I said before, I am not one to dwell on that; it’s over with.”
Relinquishing the record doesn’t seem to bother Aaron, and that seems remarkable, considering the enormous price that he paid in the process of breaking Ruth’s record. If ballplayers were allowed to cling to some of their most treasured records in direct ratio to how much grief and aggravation they had to endure to acquire same, then Aaron would likely hold the record well into the next millennium.
Home Run King and Cardboard Prince
The challenge to Aaron’s record has brought the Home Run King back into the public spotlight, and that means a heightened interest in his cards and collectibles. Like his contemporaries Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Aaron’s career pretty neatly matched “The Golden Years” of Topps baseball cards, with the result that he appears on a host of spectacular cards, both from an aesthetic and investment viewpoint.
Aaron’s 1954 Topps rookie card as long been a hobby mainstay; it was one of the first rookie cards that initially captured the hobby’s attention in the early 1980s and it is the key card in one of the most popular and collectible sets of the postwar era.
Game-worn Aaron jerseys and bats can command staggering prices, but like so many players of his generation, he didn’t save much in the way of equipment from his career.
“I didn’t save anything from when I played, and anything that I ever won is in Cooperstown,” Aaron said. “Players back then didn’t save anything, I’ve tried to save things like cards for my grandchildren and I have put them away in a vault, but I don’t even know what I’ve got in the vault.”
And he’s not kidding about Cooperstown having “anything that I ever won.” The list of Aaron artifacts at the Hall of Fame is incredible: his 1957 MVP Award and World Series ring; all three of his Gold Gloves; bats from milestone home runs, including Nos. 500, 600 714, 716; his 3,000th-hit bat; more than a dozen milestone home run baseballs, including Nos. 500, 600, 700, 714 and 716; jersey and pants from No. 715; his shoes from Nos. 714, 715 and 716; his cap from No. 600; and third base from No. 715.
In a day and age when so many ballplayers wind up placing their artifacts in major auctions, it’s almost inspiring to see a donation to the Hall of Fame of such magnitude. “Henry has been very gracious and amazingly generous,” is the way Bran Horn, HOF communications director puts it.
Horn said that the many of the Aaron pieces have come in over a number of years, and that his major awards were donated 20 years ago, roughly five years after Aaron’s induction. A number of the milestone baseballs came from other private collectors, but combined with Aaron’s generosity, have helped make the Aaron presence at the Hall nothing short of spectacular. “He is a player who wanted his legacy preserved here,” Horn added, noting that Aaron is among the most comprehensively represented players in the Hall.
For Aaron, the baseball cards that he appeared on have a real significance for him, along with a close relationship that he has with the man who might be dubbed “The Father of the Modern Baseball Card,” Sy Berger, former Topps vice president. “Sy and I were always close, and when I went to New York and I would see Sy, I would say, “Where’s the money?” Aaron laughed.
Sometimes that might mean a check for $125 or so in exchange for the rights to produce the player’s cards, although Topps in those years also offered players the chance to select items from their famous catalog.
“I think at some point I also got some of the lovely gifts that Topps offered in its catalog ( I swear, he actually said that), but at the time cash looked good to me,” Aaron recounted. “Especially when you were making the kind of money that we were making in those days.”
Modern players with multimillion-dollar salaries and endorsement deals might not be able to comprehend the notion of a ballplayer needing $125, but there was not a trace of bitterness in Aaron’s voice when he recalled that, merely an acknowledgement that it was a decidely different era.
And unlike players of today, Aaron didn’t have so many cards issued that he couldn’t take notice of them over the years.
“I don’t exac tly know why, but I liked my second-year Topps card (1955) the best,” Aaron continued. “That card meant an awful lot to me.”
The portrait of Aaron on that card was the same as on his 1954 Topps rookie card and on the 1956 version as well; Topps was big in recycling long before even the word itself became fashionable.
Aaron was unaware of a couple of hobby stories surrounding his 1956 and 1957 cards. On his 1956 card, the “action” image of a player sliding into home is actually Willie Mays, with his uniform and cap crudely airbrushed to facilitate the deception. The photo used for it came from a famous photo that was used by Dell Publishing on the cover of its 1955 Who’s Who in Baseball magazine.
“I kind of remember that, but you see so many cards over the years. I always thought that face was not me,” he added.
As serious hobbyists know, Aaron’s 1957 Topps card shows him batting left-handed, a curiosity that came about when a Topps graphics guy flipped the negative. For many years, Aaron took the rap for that one, and ultimately was tickled to find out that he bore no responsibility at all.
“I always thought that was my own doing. Well, I’ll be darned. I didn’t know that. I always took the blame for that, and now I am going to have to start blaming Topps,” he said with a wink.
And Aaron is convinced that he has also earned another important designation in the card-collecting realm. “Let me tell you, I think I can be referred to as a pioneer on the card-show circuit,” he insisted in yet another exclusive SCD interview in the early 1990s.
“When I was playing for the Milwaukee in 1976, I was invited to a card show in Detroit to sign autographs. Not many people even knew what a card show was, because the Detroit event was the first of its kind,” he recalled. “I was paid something like $2,000 for my appearance there, and that was considered big money for a personal appearance at the time.”
Just as with the cards themselves, Aaron’s price tag has gone up a bit over the last three decades. Now the numbers are essentially fit for a king, even one about to relinquish his throne.