The Babe had it easy, at least when it came to setting the all-time home run record. When he broke Roger Connor’s record of 139 homers in 1921, it caused barely a ripple of attention. Fifty-three years later, when Henry Aaron was closing in on Ruth’s 714 home run record, it was an athletic struggle marred by hatred. By then Babe was a legendary icon and often considered the best-ever to play the game. Now, thirty-one years after Hank hit his final home run (755), there is another furor as Barry Bonds approaches and breaks the all-time home run record.
Hank Aaron’s pursuit of the most hallowed record in baseball was shamed by racial bigotry. Compounding the fact was that Aaron played for the Atlanta Braves, in a South which was not too far removed from segregation. Barry Bonds’ chase is marred by an indignity of another sort. Purists do not want to see a man whose body seems to have been transformed by performance enhancement substances break a record by a man whose muscles were all natural. Their indignation is fueled further by Bonds’ surly behavior; in public he makes prima donnas look demure.
Regardless of the personalities involved, how Aaron approached this record has lessons for those of us who may never swing a bat but who all aspire to set marks by which others may remember us.
Be focused. It takes a lot of concentration to hit a baseball coming toward you at speeds upwards of 90-100 miles an hour. Some call it the single most difficult task in all of sports. To drive that ball three to four hundred or more feet into the stands is an even more remarkable feat. Doing it 755 times as Aaron did is Herculean. To maintain such focus at the plate you must be prepared. You must keep yourself in tip-top shape as well as study each pitcher’s style as well as each of his pitches to consider what he might throw at you. That’s concentration.
Be team-oriented. Players are not supposed to be thinking about breaking records; they need to be finding ways to help the team win. But when the buzz is all about the record, great players just do what they can do taking it one game at a time. It’s what Aaron was able to do, and as a result he did become the all time home run king. Along the way, he was a consummate team player. Dusty Baker, then a young player on the Braves and later a Giants manager of which Bonds was a player, said on ESPN’s Game of the Week that Aaron was a father figure to the young players.
Be humble. ESPN’s “Game of the Week” analyst, Joe Morgan, himself a Hall of Famer, recalls that everyone in the game called Aaron the Hammer. One because he could hit so well, and second because he was strong and durable. There’s another reason, I think. He was an exemplar of how to play above the distractions. Growing up black in Alabama, he experienced Jim Crow segregation first-hand. And in his early days as a player in the major leagues in the 1950s, racial bigotry was tangible. As he approached the record, Aaron received death threats and even had a bodyguard to protect him after games. Hank did not bemoan his fate; he played the game in stride, even against pressures that would bring lesser men to their knees. The Hammer played the game and by doing so with dignity and grace set an example for others to follow.
Pursuing home run records is tough business. Roger Maris met vitriol when he was seeking to break Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs in 1961. Race was not a factor; Maris was a white man from Fargo, North Dakota. And perhaps that fact may have hurt him. Shy and withdrawn, he did not seem “Yankee” enough for New York fans. There was nothing larger than life about Maris the way there was about the Babe, or later Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. Maris was so distraught during his home run pursuit patches of his hair fell out. Still, he did persevere and in the last game of the season sent number 61 over the fence. [Sadly, it was a record marked with an asterisk since Babe set his record in 154 game season while Maris’s season was 162 games.]
Home run records may be more fun for fans than they are for players. Many fans are already rooting for Alex Rodriguez, who will be the youngest player to hit 500 homers, to break Bonds’ eventual record. But nothing in baseball – as in life – is ever for certain. Except for one thing. Hank Aaron is a home run king by dint of his example on and off the field.
Sources: Wikipedia-Babe Ruth; ESPN’s “Game of the Week” with analyses by Dusty Baker and Joe Morgan
John Baldoni • Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com