In his earlier books (The Final Season and The Road to Cooperstown), Tom Stanton vividly captured the elemental relationship between father, son, and baseball. The strength of these books was the subjectivity – the “I was there” feeling – that the author brought to the narrative. Stanton departs from that theme in his current book. Yet the powerful saga of Hank Aaron’s quest to break the hallowed home run record of Babe Ruth is strong enough to make this a highly readable book even though Stanton has no personal connection to the events.
At the start of the 1973 baseball season, Aaron had six hundred seventy-three career home runs, forty-one shy of Babe Ruth’s record. Starting as a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Aaron had quietly accumulated his astounding career statistics. Observers had rated Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays as the favorites to break Ruth’s record. But injuries in the case of Mantle and the cavernous outfield of Giant’s stadium for Mays thwarted these men. It thus came as a surprise to many when Aaron found himself on the threshold of what was once considered an insurmountable hurdle.
Stanton’s narrative covers the entire 1973 season and the early part of the following season when Aaron actually surpassed Ruth. While Stanton did not interview Aaron, the slugger allowed his friends, teammates and family members to speak to the author. Stanton uses these personal sources and a plethora of published accounts to paint a detailed and often poignant portrait of Aaron’s chase.
Aaron’s chase was seen by many as an African American trying to break the record set by a white player. Babe Ruth was no ordinary white player, though. To many, he was the quintessential athlete, a man who inspired millions through his feats and triumphs. To have an African American break Ruth’s record was unthinkable. Aaron received death threats, both to himself and to his family, and constant abuse. Through all this, he maintained his dignity as he quietly went about his role as the Braves’ outfielder and senior statesman. Battling injuries and fatigue – Aaron was 39 in 1973 – he found time to mentor his junior teammates and speak out at the lack of opportunities for African Americans.
Heroes abound in Stanton’s portrayal. Apart from Aaron himself, a number of people, both on and off the field, come out in flying colors. There is Eddie Matthews, the manager of the Atlanta Braves, who stood by Aaron and often deflected blame onto himself to protect his friend and player; Billye Williams, then Aaron’s fiancée, who stood steadfastly by her man; and the thousands of schoolchildren (a teenaged Stanton, among them) who wrote inspiring letters of support to Aaron.
Then there were those who behaved in a less than exemplary fashion. Chief among them was Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball at that time. When Aaron hit his seven hundredth home run, he got congratulatory messages from a multitude of people. Conspicuous by its absence was an acknowledgement from Kuhn. When the press questioned him about it, Kuhn offered a weak rationale and later on made several absurd gestures to atone for this.
Aaron comes across as a person justifiably proud of his accomplishment yet astounded by the lack of interest in his hometown of Atlanta (the Braves home attendance was appallingly low, in contrast to the record-breaking crowds that Aaron drew on the road) and the antipathy shown him by white America. He is more relieved than proud when he ends his quest in 1974.
Stanton weaves social history with baseball narrative to give the reader a sense of the country’s ambience in 1973. This is the book’s strength, and this is what makes it more than just a baseball book. It forces us to confront our deep felt prejudices that often cloud our worldview. Much like
H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights told us about high school football’s place in a town’s life, this book allows us to look at America in the 1970s, warts and all, through the lens of baseball.