Hank Aaron's place in baseball and American history holds up
March 1, 2016 12:00 AM
Associated Press Photo
The story of former career home run king and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron will open in Pittsburgh.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Henry Aaron’s record-breaking 715th career home run, one that brought a stadium full of spectators in the Deep South to its feet in applause of an African-American man, isn’t a moment frozen in time, powerful as it was. His career and his achievements in that time created a legacy that’s omnipresent today.
As Black History Month ended Monday, that point was emphasized and discussed at a premier screening at Heinz History Center of “The Hammer of Hank Aaron,” a documentary created through a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Channel and MLB.
“I think Aaron, not by saying a word but simply persevering and succeeding, is this undeniable symbol and force for racial equality,” said Rob Ruck, a history professor and sports historian at Pitt. “The one thing people realize about sport is if somebody beats you, they beat you. It’s something you learn about people. At one level, you can maintain a lot of racial thoughts, but you cannot deny their ability. [Martin Luther] King understood Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Aaron, Curt Flood, Oscar Robertson and Jim Brown were doing that.”
The film was one of four that will air on the Smithsonian Channel in its “Major League Legends” series.
Before a room that included Aaron’s sister-in-law and Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of baseball Hall-of-Famer Josh Gibson, the documentary detailed the challenges Aaron had to overcome to break Babe Ruth’s longstanding career home-run record. From having to hide under the bed as a child as the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of his family’s house to receiving piles of hate mail targeting himself and his family, Aaron became a symbol of strength and success in the face of perseverance.
Even for people far removed from his struggle, like future politicians growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Aaron became a hero.
“It was a time of giants,” said Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, who spoke before the film was shown. “We were very, very lucky to see the likes of Hank Aaron.”
At a time when baseball is struggling to attract large numbers of African-American players — only 8.3 percent of players on opening day rosters in 2015 were identified as black — the impact of Aaron and Jackie Robinson, who integrated baseball in 1947, might seem lost.
“There’s a generation of athletes from Robinson to Aaron to Tommy Smith and John Carlos to Muhammad Ali to Jim Brown who established the African-American athletic presence in a way that can no longer be denied or questioned,” Ruck said. “By the time you get a Michael Jordan who has his posters on bedroom walls of young white girls without raising an eyebrow, it just goes to show you that despite the racism that has persisted how far we’ve come.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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