This Day in History 4/8: Hank Aaron’s 715th Homer

410483918_b01c93debcMr. D is now officially on his spring vacation, where he’ll be taking a well-deserved rest.  That doesn’t mean the Neighborhood won’t be updated. 

But just as a head’s up, I may be updating sporadically, if at all, between April 15-19 as I will be in Las Vegas, hopefully bumped into a suite and ahead on the count at the blackjack table before the pit boss finds out.  Will give a full report on my return–or, if the pit boss does find out, from a hospital bed.

Okay, haven’t done this in a while, but today is definitely a high note historically for the Neighborhood.  On April 8, 1974, Henry “Hank” Aaron of the Altanta Braves hit his 715th home run, surpassing the 714-mark set by the legendary Babe Ruth from 1916-1935. 

Say what you will about Barry Bonds passing that mark in 2006, whether he was juiced or not–to be honest, I haven’t made up my mind.  What I will say is that the Aaron moment, in many ways, was one of the true defining moments in baseball and in society.  After the turmoil and struggles of the 1960s, especially the civil rights movement, it was only a matter of time before a player of color would break records that in baseball are considered sacrosanct. Even with the viciousness of the attacks against him, Aaron’s consistency at bat, coupled by his quiet professional demeanor, made believers out of many people, black and white.

Now a lot will be written–or has been written–about this moment and about Aaron, who happens to not only be one of the greatest players ever, but one of the truly “good guys” in baseball.  I will not belabor the point much more, only to provide an anecdote about the kind of world Aaron was rubbing up against.

One of my Christmas presents was a set of DVDs featuring Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, a series of celebrity roasts during the 1970s featuring Rat-Packer Dean Martin as your master of ceremonies.  Just before the 1974 season, NBC had taped a roast of Hank Aaron, which featured the usual cavalcade of comedians, sports figures, and other celebrities of the era.  When Joey Bishop, Martin’s colleague in the Rat Pack, took the mike to grill Aaron, it seemed innocuous enough.  After all, Bishop was never known to be particularly biting or vicious–that role went to Don Rickles. 

However, Bishop made a closing remark that, even today, rubs me wrong.  He said that so the Braves could help Hank reach home run number 715, they should “paint the baseballs green to look like watermelons.”  At that moment, Aaron was laughing along with the cast, so I’m not sure what he was thinking.  I doubt he would’ve said anything, as he was too much of a gentleman.  But it burned me up plenty–and I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Even in the early 1970s, a decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Aaron still faced some sort of bigotry and ignorance. 

 Much of this humor is now passe, to be sure.    I doubt Bishop would’ve been able to get away with that today.  A lesser person than Aaron would have belted Bishop in the kisser.   Furthermore, I’m no prude–I love saucy and off-color humor as much as anyone.  Yet referring to watermelons, even then, still seems way below the belt.   Also, since Bishop said it on a highly rated show for a national network, it could be assumed he still spoke for blocs of Americans that were still uneasy with the pace of change.

Well, enough about baseball and watermelons.  We’ve come a long way since–and it’s important we salute Hank Aaron as a great player and a great instrument of our social history.  Keep swinging, Hank.

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