In the movie 61*, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were famously in a duel to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. Like Ruth, they were both Yankees and white. Even so, the pressure on them was immense and when Maris finished with 61, his record was not universally accepted since a) he dethroned Ruth and b) his era played eight more games than did teams in Ruth’s era. The commissioner suggested that if the record wasn’t broken in 154 games, the old standard, the new record should get a mark indicating that it wasn’t the same.
A sportswriter suggested an asterisk and Bob’s your uncle, it’s been used ever since to indicate something that needs to be clarified.
Maris received death threats and was under police protection.
So imagine what it must have been like for Hank Aaron in Atlanta when he was on the verge of breaking Ruth’s career home run record.
Aaron started in the last days of the Negro Leagues; the Boston Braves bought his contract on the cheap and he went with the team to Milwaukee in 1953 and then on to Atlanta in 1966.
Like Maris, as he approached Ruth’s record, he came under immense pressure; unlike Maris, he was an African-American playing in a city which, in 1974, was still dismantling Jim Crow culture. The last segregationist to be elected governor, Lester Maddox, left office just three years before.
The pressure that Aaron, and his family, felt when he approached Ruth was intense. Like Maris, he received many death threats; unlike Maris, some of them were starkly racist in nature.
So while the accomplishment was surely relished, it was a very difficult thing to do under often vile circumstances. Journalist Lewis Grizzard actually had written an obituary for Aaron, fearing that he would be killed before he could break the record.
Which brings us to this clip of announcing god Vin Scully calling Aaaron’s 715th homer to claim the record as his own.
A couple of fans rushed the field to pat him on the back and touch history then peeled off as Aaron headed for home base where his parents waited to greet him.
When his mother got to Aaron she threw her arms around him and would not let go. Scully comments on it and assumes it the emotion of joy and surely part of it was.
We can't find a link for this but we read years after that she was terrified that her son was going to be shot and, heartbreakingly, was using her body to protect him.
Aaron’s record was later broken by Barry Bonds, but his record is tainted by alleged steroid use and perhaps he should get an asterisk of his own. He retired in 2007 and, due to suspicions over the PED controversy, has not yet been voted into the Hall of Fame.