April 07, 2014

Baseball fans, where were you on Aaron-watch 40 years ago?

Hank Aaron, April 8, 1974.
April 8, 1975 was when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth with homer 715, and became the new all-time home run champion.

And now, 40 years later, it's time for reminiscing.

First, on the personal side. People under 40 aren't familiar with what sports coverage was like before the proliferation of sports-specific cable channels. WGN, WTBS, and KTLA in Los Angeles were some sort of "superstations," but none of them yet had true nationwide reach.

Growing up in western New Mexico, we got KTLA as part of our basic (there was no premium) cable package, in part because the Albuquerque Dukes were the L.A. Dodgers' AAA farm club. (I still can't get used to the name of the new team, the Albuquerque Isotopes.)  So, I heard Vin Scully on Dodgers games, as that was their home TV station. And, on some nights, all the way in Gallup, N.M., this Cards fan could pick up KMOX, a radio superstation, and hear the gravelly voice of Jack Buck calling Redbirds games.

Otherwise, you watched NBC for your national games of the week on Monday night; NBC had junked Saturday baseball and did only Monday night games, until it and ABC split rights in 1976 and NBC moved to Saturdays.

And fortunately for all of us, including the gracious-in-infamy table-setting pitcher, Al Downing, that game was on NBC on Monday night.

And, we get Curt Gowdy, not as gravelly as Buck, but enough. (I'm old enough to remember a fair chunk of Gowdy's broadcasting, and not just MLB. No, he wasn't Vin Scully. But, he wasn't as bad as some people make him out to be.)

I was 10 years old, and already then, an avid baseball fan in general, and Cards' fan above all, then a Dodgers fan of sorts after that.

Listening to different "calls" of the game, I also forgot that the Dodgers actually tried 1986 World Series goat Bill Buckner in the outfield; he was the left fielder who watched the ball go out. (And, he was kind of crappy as a defensive outfielder way back then.) And, Tom House, in the Braves' bullpen, had a magic glove, for a magic moment.

For additional calls? You can hear Scully, since he was the Dodgers' guy, and Milo Hamilton, the Braves' broadcaster, as well as Gowdy:

As for Aaron? As the AP story and many others note, he was relieved rather than jubilant. A boatload of racist hate mail had accumulated ever since he ended 1973 with 713 home runs. The two white fans who ran on the field during his home run trot certainly didn't help his nerves, or the moment in general.

Per this piece:
“If I were a white man, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron was quoted as saying. “But I’m black. You have to be black in America to know how sick some people are. I’ve always thought racism a problem, even with as much progress as America has made.”
Sadly, he was right then. Sadly, there's still a fair amount of rightness in those words 40 years later.

It seems 40 years is about right for such reminiscing, as it was for Apollo 11. You knew that everybody was aging enough that waiting until the 50th was too long. But, on the other hand, the 25th might seem too soon. With Apollo, there was the risk of it being triumphalist, coming soon after the downfall of the Soviet Union.

With Aaron, there was the risk that we didn't yet know how hard it might be to pass him. And, speaking of ...

Not only did Aaron become the new home run champion 40 years ago, he still is, in my book.

Sorry, Barry Bonds, you're not. And, Father Time is making sure Alex Rodriguez won't pass either of you. As for you ESPN writers who claim that the "greenies" Aaron may have taken can add just as much to one's batting as the best steroids? Sorry, Jim Bouton has already emphatically said you're wrong.
To his eternal credit ... Bouton not only disagreed, but got it exactly right. Some day, he says in the interview, baseball will have to reckon with years and years of records that will be artificially inflated, distorted beyond all measure, by the effects of a drug that lets you keep working out when the guys next to you – or before you, chronologically – have to drop the barbell. It was Bouton, after all, who had written in the eternal Ball Four that if a pitcher could take a pill that guaranteed him a) 20 wins and b) that he’d die five years sooner, he would’ve swallowed it before you finished that “b)” part.
Aaron himself was ... circumspect seven years ago, but it's clear that he's not totally on board with Bonds' claims, either. (And, while it's an overrated stat of the past, Aaron is still the all-time RBI leader.) And, a favorite player of mine, and presumed non-roider? Albert Pujols is likely also to fall short, though he may nick the 700 ticker tape before moving off the field.

And, he's not alone. Per this story, other players, like Ken Singleton, still consider Hank the champ.

It's hard comparing eras, and comparing hypotheticals, too. Would Ruth still be the all-time leader if he hadn't started his career as a pitcher? Would Ted Williams have passed Ruth before Aaron did, if not for three full years, and most of two others, of military duty in two wars? I'll put at least 50-50 odds if not better on a "yes" on that. On the other hand, without playing in The House that Ruth Built and Fenway, would their stats be different? What about Willie Mays missing all of one year and most of another in the military? I'll give you 50-50 on that, too, or near to it. Or Mickey Mantle having good bones and knees? I'll say "possible," while noting we're in a wider territory of hypotheticals now. (That said, Teddy Ballgame had his own bits of fragility; no guaranteeing he would have held up for 22 years.)


Sadaharu Oh, with his 868 homers and all? He had a nice passing of Aaron, but he never made that claim himself to be the greatest home run masher ever. Josh Gibson? Great player. Did he hit 800 HRs of the wildest of tales or not? Not in official games, to be sure; we do know that his 80-HR season included barnstorming games and more, and even then may be a myth. We do know that it was against outclassed competition, because progenitors of the racists who sent Aaron death threats wouldn't let him play in the major leagues.

Unfortunately, this is all part of the 40 years of reflection, as well. So is the diminishing number of American blacks playing baseball, though it continues to draw Hispanics, including Caribbean blacks and browns, and Asians, and a few Europeans, even. With all that, even if it's not America's game, anymore, it's still all-American in its own way.

Now, if umps would only enforce 20-second pitch counts. That said, the record-setter game, a 7-4 Braves win, clocked at 2:27, while the Cardinals' April 6, 2014 2-1 loss to the Pirates, with about the same amount of pitching changes, but a lower score, came in at 2:29.

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