Many of you may have seen Billy Crystal’s fine movie 61*, about how Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both pursued Ruth’s single-season home run record as Yankee’s teammates in 1961. The commissioner ruled that the record, which was viewed as something sacred, would have to be broken in 154 games, the same number of regular season games Ruth played, or an asterisk would be placed by it. In 1961, the regular season consisted of 162 games.
For Maris, the pressure was unyielding and profoundly difficult to deal with. But it was nothing compared to what Aaron would deal with 13 years later.
It kind of crept up on Americans that Henry Aaron might break Babe Ruth’s home run record.
And for Aaron, who died Friday at 86, it was a brutal ascent. He was called vile, racist names, threatened with murder and degraded on a daily basis for having the audacity to challenge Ruth’s great record.
Yet he kept playing and though he was in the twilight of his career, played well.
By the time it became clear that he would break Ruth’s record, the pressure on him was unbelievable, far worse than what Maris and Mantle faced.
The video of him hitting #715 and trotting around the bases is famous for a number of things, not least of all the kids who slipped by security and ran part of the way with him, beaming and congratulating him.
The part that always haunts us though is when he gets to home base and meets his parents. His mother throws her arms around him and holds him very, very tight.
Years later, we read that she did this because she was afraid that one of his viciously racist letter writers would still try to take a shot at him. In other words, she wasn't hugging him out of joy or exaltation but rather trying to shield him from an assassin.
Aaron himself never fully escaped the trauma of that season. He worried about being assassinated or poisoned for the rest of his life.
Years later, Barry Bonds passed him, finishing with 762 home runs to Aaron’s 755. However, he was part of the ugly steroids era and because of that has never been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Unlike Maris, who didn’t deserve it, Bonds never got the asterisk he should have. However, the ball that broke Aaron’s career record does have one: Mark Ecko bought the ball at auction and let fans vote on whether it should have an asterisk or not. They voted yes so even though Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame, his ball is - with an asterisk.
Here’s a small but interesting footnote.
In December, MLB announced that it would, at long last, recognize Negro League players as official Major League Baseball Players and incorporate their stats into MLB history.
Aaron played briefly for the Indianapolis Clowns, three months in 1951, before the Braves (then in Milwaukee) bought his contract.
During his time there, Aaron hit five home runs, which would get him to 760 total, just two behind Bonds.
It’s close enough that some baseball historian should start combing through the boxscores of both players to see if there are any errors or omissions.