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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

A hero's story, on and off the field

BY WILLIAM McMILLEN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

HANK AARON AND THE HOME RUN THAT CHANGED AMERICA. By Tom Stanton. William Morrow. 249 pages.$23.95.

Author Tom Stanton has a way of personalizing baseball. His first book, The Final Season, was about the last year of baseball at Tiger Stadium, the stadium where he spent his life watching baseball. His second book, The Road to Cooperstown, was about a nostalgic trip with his father and brother to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stanton's new book, Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America, is not based on personal experience; he was a teenage fan in a faraway city, watching Aaron go after Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs. However, he tells the very personal story of Aaron's struggle against both contemporary racism and the ghost of Babe Ruth.

Hank Aaron was a quiet young man from Mobile, Ala., who broke into the majors with the Milwaukee Braves in 1953. Although the Braves were one of the better teams of the era, winning a World Series in 1957, Aaron was mostly out of the national spotlight. He was just another good player on a good team who never came close to threatening the Babe's single- season record of 60 home runs.

But year after year he hit around 40 homers, even after the team moved to Atlanta, and he was the only good player on a perenially bad team.

Suddenly, it was 1973 and most of the media woke up to the fact that Aaron - who was now the highest-paid ballplayer in America with a salary of $200,000 - had a good chance of breaking Ruth's career record, the most sacred of baseball feats.

Stanton traces the history of race in baseball. In fact, the book begins with Jackie Robinson's funeral in October, 1972. Robinson had been the first black major-leaguer in 1947. Aaron and most of the other African-American stars of baseball attended Robinson's funeral in Harlem.

Now Aaron, 26 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, would have to relive the racism Robinson experienced. And he would have to relive it in the South. Stanton chronicles Aaron's harrowing year, including constant racial taunts from fans in the stands and a steady stream of death threats against himself and his family.

In other parts of the country, Aaron's quest became a sensational story. Huge crowds came to watch him and boo their own pitchers, who often tried to pitch around Aaron and ended up walking him - a similar fate often faces Barry Bonds today. Chicago, particularly, cheered for Aaron; he had become acquainted with a young minister and youth leader named Jesse Jackson.

But he was virtually ignored in his home ballpark in Atlanta, where crowds were sparse, and he was jeered more than cheered. In addition, Aaron had to engage in a running feud with baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a traditionalist who downplayed Aaron's effort.

Aaron ended up one short of the record in 1973. He had to endure an entire off-season of added pressure before April, 1974, when he tied the record in Cincinnati and broke it finally before a sell-out crowd (although 10,000 tickets weren't sold until the day of the game, despite enormous publicity) in Atlanta.

Stanton effectively tells Aaron's personal story and catches the excitement of his athletic achievement. But he also paints a picture of the times and how one man affected a sport and a country.

William McMillen is an administrator at the Medical College of Ohio. He grew up in Wisconsin cheering for Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves.



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