Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America: Hank Aaron and the Pursuit of a Dreamby Tom Stanton
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.
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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Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America
By Stanton, Tom
William Morrow & CompanyISBN: 0060579765
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 trueand 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.Continues...
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Meet the Author
Tom Stanton, an award-winning journalist of twenty-five years, is the author of two memoirs, The Road to Cooperstown and The Final Season, winner of the Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife and their children.
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Growing up in Detroit, I was raised to be a Tigers fan. My dad taught me about baseball, and took me to games at 'The Corner.' It was there that my love of the game grew. I read Tom Stanton's first book, The Final Season, and enjoyed it greatly. In this book, I see Stanton's growth as a writer. Like a fine wine, Stanton gets better and better with age. This book offered great insight to not only Aaron's personal struggles during the Ruth chase, but also did a great job of placing the it in a broader context of the era. Stanton has done his homework, conducting interview after interview with the people who knew Aaron and lived the chase with him. This book has given me EVEN MORE respect for Hammerin' Hank, and changed the way I view the sport. Stanton can hold his own among today's great literary talents, telling a compelling story in a prose reminiscient of Norman Maclean, all the while casting my memory back to a time when baseball was about more than money, life was much simpler (without the threat of Orange Alerts or Anthrax), and I was younger. This book is not only a great tribute to Aaron, it is a great tribute to baseball, and to every fan who has ever dreamed of trotting the bases in the big leagues. I plan on getting it for my dad for father's day. A MUST read.
Well written. Having been raised in Milwaukee, this book was of particular interest to me. Hank Aaron was a hometown hero before the Braves moved to Atlanta and again when he came back to Milwaukee at the end of his career. Most people know of his exceptional success but until I read this book, I wasn't fully aware of the hardships he also had to endure regarding racial prejudice. The book has lots of great pictures but most of them are at the very end of the book. Be sure to read to the very last page which is well beyond the end of the story itself or you will miss many of them. This book brought back many great memories of the Braves and all the key players both in Milwaukee and Atlanta. It will entertain and inspire you. Truly worth reading.
I have been in a mood to read non fiction lately. I'm not a huge sports fan but this looked interesting and it certainly was. The story follows Hank Aaron and his quest to overtake Babe Ruth's home run record. Hank Aaron is a gentle man who is an amazing athlete, father, husband and man. He suffers through horrible racist threats to himself, his team and his family to achieve his goal.
Growing up in Atlanta, I was an avid Braves and Aaron fan, getting my hands on everything I could read about Hank. The other day, I saw Stanton on TV, promoting this book, and thought I would check it out. Good thing I did. I thought I knew the story of Aaron's chase but I found out so much more from this book. Stanton's really done his research, and his writing takes me back to the chase back in 73 and 74, uncovering memories long forgotten. Stanton brings the era and Aaron's glory back to life. In an age of prancing and preening home run hitters hopped up on steroids, it's nice to read about a man who calmly trotted the bases and earned his spot as one of the greatest ever through hard work and dedication. Stanton's book should be required reading for all baseball fans.