A daily accumulation of history and present as I follow the 2011 year through the baseball season and reflect on the glories and disappointments of the greatest game on Earth.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtney

It’s hard to imagine that Hank Aaron could have imagined being the all-time homerun king in his days with the Indianapolis Clowns. However, when he became the last Negro Leagues player to hit the major leagues in 1954, his durability and intensity combined for a solid career that amounted to excellence beyond his 21 All Star Game appearances. Here was a man who has amassed 755 homeruns without using Winstrol, without popping greenies, and without the support of an American population that actively rooted against him with statements such as "Dear Nigger Henry, You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. ... Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. . My gun is watching your every black move."
It’s hard to imagine a world so divided in racial hatred in the year 2010. In a country where a mixed race man has become president, where hip hop rules the airwaves and affects the entire cultural and business mediums, and where people interact and marry whoever they want without a second thought from large majorities of the population, we have moved beyond color as a consideration for how we live our lives. This is not to say that stereotypes of all races don’t still exist. The ignorant cracker is still as commonplace as the ghetto thug, but gone are the days of racist culture as being accepted by the mainstream media (despite the popularity and increased value of lynching postcards, Little Black Sambo, and Song of the South on E-bay).
Even with the utter hatred for Barry Bonds that existed when he broke Aaron’s record on August 7, 2007, the people of San Francisco partied at the accomplishment of their “gruff” hero. And while there was a general festivity in the air at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on that night 36 years ago, there was no Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Unlike Bud Selig who distanced himself from Bonds’ “cheater” self, Kuhn had no reason to stay away other than a lack of appreciation for the celebration that comes from Major League milestones. Of course, the Orioles and Major League Baseball would rectify this September 6, 1995, and do their best to start bringing baseball back from the morass that it had placed itself in the previous year, but at that time, it seemed foreign.
Instead, the greatest part of that moment was when Hank casually trotted the bases with his hatred still seething at the pains that he had endured and suddenly, just like that, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtney, two college students, ran out on the field and patted him on the back as they joined in part of his celebration run. Some people have referred to this as trespassing, but to a man, there was something about the solidarity of what they were doing that always made that homerun special. It wasn’t the call, the fireworks, the commercials that were made in homage to the instant, or even the magnificence of a long fly ball vanishing into some city’s night. It was the pure pleasure of America being able to be a part of a game that made it stand aside for me.
It almost didn’t turn out that way. Aaron was traveling with a bodyguard due to death threats like the one above, and nobody was taking any chances on anything. The bodyguard did draw a gun on the soon to be college students, but fortunately, Atlanta’s finest got the kids first and threw them in jail with a $100 fine and a charge of “Disorderly Conduct and Interfering with the Lawful Occupation of Another.” In the end, nobody was hurt, and years later, the boys got to meet Aaron in a way that wasn’t “get the hell away from me.”
Now, it’s all different, but back then, it was a different story. The steroids era hitters have largely come and gone, and with exception to what becomes of Alex Rodriguez in his quest for 763, we still wonder how it will look on that night in 2017 when the prima donna comes to bat against the current version of Al Downing and attempts to take down the record. Of course, Albert Pujols is at 368 moonshots into his career in 7 fewer years, so we can only hope that he will press forward quicker than A-Fraud. I’m sure the entire baseball community that doesn’t live and breathe “da Bronx” hopes the same thing. It’s safe to say that Hank Aaron won’t be watching, but I’m sure I will, and while I’m there, I’ll be saving up more spit and venom for my little blue-lipped friend and waiting for the day that baseball retains its sense of accomplishment that it experienced on that April night in 1974.
Until that time, I’ll keep pondering how the Red Sox are already phoning in their season and Albert Pujols has twice as many whiffs as Ryan Howard in 2010 (oh yeah, that’s right; it’s only 2 games into the season).

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