Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America

Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America

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by Tom Stanton

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Baseball has witnessed more than 125,000 home runs. Many have altered the outcome of games, and some have decided pennants and become legend. But no dinger has had greater impact than Hank Aaron's 715th home run. His historic blast on April 8, 1974, lifted him above Babe Ruth on the all-time list, an achievement that shook not only baseball but our nation itself.

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Baseball has witnessed more than 125,000 home runs. Many have altered the outcome of games, and some have decided pennants and become legend. But no dinger has had greater impact than Hank Aaron's 715th home run. His historic blast on April 8, 1974, lifted him above Babe Ruth on the all-time list, an achievement that shook not only baseball but our nation itself. Aaron's magnificent feat provoked bigotry and shattered prejudice, inspired a generation, emboldened a flagging civil rights movement, and called forth the demons that haunted Aaron's every step and turned what should have been a joyous pursuit into a hellish nightmare.

In this powerful recollection, Tom Stanton penetrates the myth of Aaron's chase and uncovers the compelling story behind the most consequential athletic achievement of the past fifty years. Three decades after Hank Aaron reached the pinnacle of the national pastime, and now as Barry Bonds makes history of his own, Stanton unfolds a tale rich with drama, poignancy, and suspense to bring to life the elusive spirit of an American hero.

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Editorial Reviews

Sports Illustrated
“Engaging...The real story here...is of the trials this wondrous player endured on the way to his big moment.”
Chicago Tribune
“Powerful...Baseball books rarely reach the heights of Stanton’s...Excellent.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“One of 2004’s better sports histories.”
Mobile Register
“Entertaining ...Stanton’s work best exposes...the man who hit that home run.”
Publishers Weekly
In April 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth's longstanding record for homers, which Aaron had days earlier tied on his first swing of the '74 baseball season. Stanton, whose The Final Season won the Casey Award for best baseball book of 2001, gives a solid account of Aaron's career and the tumultuous year preceding his historic run. This is a fitting celebration in advance of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the event, as well as a solid tribute to the man who "played in more games, got more at-bats, knocked in more runs, collected more total bases, recorded more extra-base hits, and hit more home runs-755-than any other ballplayer." The most fascinating and horrifying part of Stanton's account-sadly for baseball history-is the extent to which Aaron's historic run was marred by constant hate mail and death threats from so-called fans angry that a black man would soon be breaking a white man's record. Stanton effectively uses ballpark attendance records to show that, while Aaron was selling out stadiums across the country, his own Atlanta Braves ballpark was "two-thirds empty" on the day that he hit home run 700, and that 10,000 seats were unsold before the day he broke the record, while 35 million to 40 million people watched or listened to the game worldwide. Stanton shows how Aaron came to understand that "the home run record carried significance beyond baseball," and how he effectively used the media attention to consciously continue the legacy of Jackie Robinson and strongly argue for the increased role of African-Americans in major league baseball management. Agent, Philip Spitzer. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When, after more than two decades of knocking baseballs over fences, "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron finally approached Babe Ruth's last "unbreakable" record -714 lifetime home runs-not all of baseball was cheering him on. In addition to enduringthe intensifying media scrutiny, the quiet, black slugger had his life threatened and race denigrated by scores of antifans in phone calls and letters. Stanton (The Final Season) captures the embittering and, finally, uplifting sides of Aaron's personal story from that record-breaking campaign that ended 30 years ago this April. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America

By Stanton, Tom

William Morrow & Company

ISBN: 0060579765

Chapter One

Jackie's Funeral

They came in silence and in somber suits. Thousands of them, many famous, most not, politicians and sports stars and civil rights leaders alongside schoolchildren and factory workers and fans of a team that long ago played in Brooklyn. They came from across the country, by plane and train and limousine, from Washington and Chicago, from Pasadena, California, and Mobile, Alabama, and every borough of New York City, a river of people flowing through the heavy, etched doors of the Neo-Gothic Riverside Church near Harlem, flowing beneath a dingy row of granite angels into the cool, solemn darkness of a sanctuary where the Rev. Martin Luther King once pleaded for peace.

They came for Jackie Robinson.

It was warm for late October, a Friday in 1972, the presidential election just days away. Outside, the sky was bright with sunshine, the crowded pavement drenched in the shadows of the twenty-one-story church. Inside, light filtered through stained-glass windows and touched the wooden pews as mourners strode past the open, gray-blue casket of the man who in 1947 had become the first black to play baseball in the major leagues.

A young preacher, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, gave the eulogy that morning. Standing tall in a full Afro that fell upon the back collar of his black-and-red robe, he spoke of the former ballplayer, his cadenced, deliberate voice buffed by a South Carolina accent. "His powerful arms lifted not only bats but barriers," said Jackson. He looked out at more than three thousand mourners. Among them were Robinson's family; entertainers, activists, and athletes like Joe Louis, Roberta Flack, and Bill Russell; an entourage of forty representing President Richard Nixon; baseball executives; white Dodger teammates such as Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca; and a roster of black ballplayers who, within a decade of Robinson's debut, had followed him into the major leagues: Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Joe Black, Junior Gilliam, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, and Hank Aaron.

They formed a fraternity of sorts, most having played together in the Negro leagues and on barnstorming teams and allstar squads. They had all experienced the indignity of being refused service at restaurants where their white teammates ate, of being forced to stay at seedy hotels and boardinghouses, of playing with and against athletes who preferred they be invisible. They all knew firsthand the wickedness Jackie Robinson had endured. To varying degrees, they had all en dured it themselves. And they all had stories to tell.

"He was a tremendous competitor," said Campanella, in a wheelchair since the car accident that ended his career. "The more you got on him, the more he was going to hurt you. Others might have gotten upset in a situation like this but not Jackie. He got better."

"We're all very sad," said Gilliam. "He was one of the greatest all-around athletes I've ever known on any athletic field. I was very close to him, and I learned a great deal from him on the field and off."

Joe Black and Larry Doby had been with Robinson nine days earlier when he was honored before the second game of the World Series. His friends knew he was ill. Diabetes and heart trouble had ravaged him. Though only fifty-three years old, Robinson had white hair, walked with a cane, was blind in one eye and losing sight in the other. He couldn't see well enough to recognize old friends.

Beneath the grandstands in Cincinnati that afternoon, a fan approached Robinson and asked him to autograph a ball. "I'm sorry," Robinson said. "I can't see it. I'd be sure to mess up the other names you have on it."

"There are no other names," the man said. "I only want yours."

When first invited to the World Series, Robinson had declined. He felt estranged from baseball, angry that the sport offered so few post-playing opportunities to minorities. He had been public in his criticism. A quarter century after Robinson broke the color barrier for players, the major leagues still had not hired a black manager. The biases that labeled blacks unqualified for such leadership positions persisted. "If you people expect me to change my thinking, or my speech, you're mistaken because I'm simply not going to do it," he warned the commissioner's office before agreeing to appear. "If the reporters ask me how I feel about baseball still not having any black managers, I'm going to tell them."

But he did not wait for anyone to ask.

Standing before the pitcher's mound with his wife beside him and dignitaries and a military color guard behind him, Robinson acknowledged the applause of the packed stadium. He thanked baseball for recognizing the anniversary of his debut and then concluded by reiterating the dream that he knew he would not live to see. He told a television audience of millions, "I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon but must admit I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."

After the game, Robinson visited the clubhouse of the victorious Oakland A's. Some witnesses said he looked out of place, a shadow of the strong man he once was. Some said he looked sad, his eyes glassy. Others noted the indifference of the players to whom he was being introduced. Only John "Blue Moon" Odom lavished attention on Robinson. "There seems to be a feeling among the current black players that they owe Jackie nothing," remarked one observer. It was a notion that Robinson's peers embraced as true—and one that upset them, for they had tried to pass on an appreciation for the sacrifices of Robinson and the other pioneers, just as they had passed their wisdom to them.


Excerpted from Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America by Stanton, Tom Excerpted by permission.
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