The Day Baseball Died
"What a difference a year makes." We're all familiar with the phrase. It's an axiom that came to my mind on the seventh day of August, 2007 when the embattled Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record held for over three decades by Henry Aaron. To be more specific, What a difference thirty-three years makes.
Turn back the clock. I was 11 years old when 40 year old Henry Aaron connected with an Al Downing fastball, launching it into the Brave's bullpen at Atlanta's Fulton-County Stadium. The year was 1974. America, baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet.
Turn the clock forward to August, 2007. 43 year old Barry Bonds blasts an 86 mile per hour fastball from Washington National's pitcher Mike Bacsik 435 feet over the right-center field wall of AT&T Park. Step aside Henry; we have a new number one. America, baseball, steroids, scandal. What a difference thirty-three years makes.
I didn't see it. Frankly, like so many others, I didn't care. Even Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball took a pass. Aaron was asleep at the time. Yawn.
Back to 1974. The weeks and days that led up to this historic moment are forever etched in my mind. Aaron was known as "Hammerin' Hank." He just as well could have been called, "Humble Hank." Reared in the south, a victim of racism, Aaron was (and remains) a man of class. He overcame the obstacles of poverty and discrimination to carve a name for himself in the annals of baseball history. Only years removed from Jim Crow and George Wallace, there were those who hated him simply because his skin was too dark. The recipient of death threats, Aaron went about his business and took the high road.
The entire country, if not the world, watched in anticipation as Aaron moved closer and closer to Ruth the Legend. It was the center of conversation in schools, homes, and offices. Each at bat was captured by the cameras. And then the historic day. Who can forget the Pulitzer moment when two fans rushed the field to pat Aaron on the back as he approached third base.
Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Brewers unveiled a memorial to mark the exact spot where the Hall of Famer's last homer, number 755, touched down. A class act on their part. As a friend of mine later teased, perhaps the spot where Bond's last homer lands could be memorialized with a large bronze needle as tribute to a new era.
In 1972, Don Mclean's hit song, American Pie, climbed the charts to number one. The song's famous lyrics, "the day the music died," are said to memorialize the tragic plane crash in 1959 that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Of course, we know that music itself didn't die on that day; for some it would just never be the same. When that baseball fell from the sky in San Francisco nearly fifty years later, maybe, just maybe, history will look back on that moment as the day that baseball died. For us purists at least, the game identified with America, mothers and apple pie will never be the same.