ENID, Okla. —
Baseball is a game of numbers.
Hits, runs, balls, strikes, RBI, ERA and batting average, all combine to make up the peculiar mathematical tapestry that makes up the fabric of the game.
For true baseball fans, numbers hold deep historic significance.
The number 61, for example. That was the number of home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961, breaking the single-season home run record of 60 set in 1927 by the legendary Yankee slugger Babe Ruth.
Or .366. That was the career batting average of Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers’ storied curmudgeon.
What about 1.12? That was Bob Gibson’s Earned Run Average for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968, the best of the so-called live ball era.
And then there is 56, the consecutive-game hitting streak amassed by another Yankee great, Joe DiMaggio, in 1941.
Then there is 714. That was the career home run mark established by Babe Ruth. For years that remained the holy grail for sluggers. Many tried to achieve it, men like Maris, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but all fell short.
Until 40 years ago last night. The 1974 season was just a handful of games old when the Babe’s storied mark was threatened.
That night, Henry Aaron stood poised to make history, having tied the Babe with 714 homers. Many fans were thrilled at the chance to witness history. Many, but not all.
As he approached Ruth’s record, Aaron was subjected to taunts, threats and stacks of hate mail. He was forced to travel with a security guard. He warned his teammates not to sit next to him in the dugout. When his Atlanta Braves were on the road, he would have to stay in a separate hotel, where he was never registered under the correct room number.
Why the incredible enmity? Not only was one of the legends of the game about to be supplanted, but by a black man.
Just after 9 p.m. local time that night, with a capacity crowd in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and a national TV audience watching, Aaron hit a high fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing into the night and into the history books, his 715th career home run. Aaron, who throughout the ordeal kept his fears and pain to himself, had done it.
That number, 715, has long since faded from memory. Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs, a number since eclipsed by Barry Bonds, who hit 762.
But Bonds’ numbers, like his single-season mark of 73 and the prior records set by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, are tainted with the foul odor of steroids.
Today, 40 years later, Aaron is 80 years old and gets around with a cane while recovering from a broken hip. In an interview published in Tuesday’s USA Today, he decries the state of race relations in this country today.
“A lot of things have happened in this country,” he said, “but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Aaron’s words seem to be borne out in another set of numbers. The nation has a black chief executive, but only 1.2 percent of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies are black.
Thirty-five percent of African-Americans live in poverty in this country. The National Urban League’s latest State of Black America report says blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be unemployed.
Aaron points to the fact only 7.7 percent of big league baseball players last season were African-American, but that seems more a product of the fact young black kids are increasingly growing up with basketballs or footballs in their hands, rather than bats and gloves. More kids want to be Robert Griffin III or Kevin Durant these days than aspire to fill Aaron’s shoes.
But his overarching point is well taken. As much progress that has been made in terms of race relations in this country over the last several decades, there is still much left to do.
Many barriers to true equality have been removed, but others have been erected.
“The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts,” Aaron told USA Today.
Forty years ago, Henry Aaron stood atop the baseball world, but the accomplishment gave him no joy, just relief.
Similarly, we should take no joy from the state of race relations today, but should feel relief that the nation has at least moved in the right direction.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.