Baseball, memories and milestones

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, April 12, 2014

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One of the things that happens as you age (gracefully) is that from time to time, dates reach out of the calendar and (ungracefully) slap you in the face.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

Last fall, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination was just such a date for many Americans. The 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America was another.

But this past Tuesday took me by surprise: the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

Hammerin’ Hank’s milestone is forever tied to one of my own: it came about six weeks before my graduation from high school.

I remember Aaron’s big hit, but I wasn’t glued to the TV. I was more occupied with passing trig, growing my hair as long as possible and owning every available Neil Diamond album.

I do recall a couple of nondescript fans jumping out of the stands and running the bases with Aaron, who was visibly startled and wary of them (having dropped the bat). I found out later he’d been receiving death threats almost daily since the end of the previous season.

Years later, I learned that Tom House, then a reliever with the Braves, had caught that home run ball on the fly in the bullpen. After they stopped the game, House ran out to home plate to present the ball to Aaron, who thought he was a batboy.

Stick with me. This all ties together. Or not.

Hank Aaron personified the kind of class and stoicism Jackie Robinson had – and he needed it. Breaking into the big leagues in the early 1950s, he played during an era when, even though the color barrier was gone, black players still faced constant racism on and off the field.

By the time he retired in 1976, Aaron was the last Negro-league ballplayer left in Major League Baseball.

Hank hit 40 more home runs, and his record of 755 stood for 33 years until it was broken in 2007 by Barry Bonds.

Bonds’ record, of course, is tainted by his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, but Aaron sent a gracious message that was played on the scoreboard in San Francisco when the record fell.

Aaron, who played at about 5’11” and 180 pounds, got his strong hands the old-fashioned way – picking cotton as a young man in Alabama.

Like America (Richard Nixon resigned later that summer amid the Watergate scandal) the 1974 baseball season had its highs and lows.

On June 4 there was a baseball riot when Cleveland hosted the Texas Rangers and ran a 10-cent beer promotion.

Texas led most of the way in spite of interruptions that included a woman running into the Cleveland on-deck circle and flashing her breasts, a naked man sprinting to second base as Tom Grieve hit his second home run of the night and a father and son dashing onto the outfield grass to moon the fans in the bleachers.

(Note that Ray Stevens’ song “The Streak” was released in March 1974 – another highlight of my senior year.)

Cleveland had tied it at 5-5 when Rangers’ manager Billy Martin came out to argue a call in the ninth inning. Fans began to throw things and were soon flooding out of the stands. The umpires forfeited the game to Texas, and the players had to arm themselves with bats just to get through the melee into the dressing room.

MLB has since outlawed 10-cent beer night promotions and made it a lot harder to get onto the field.

The Oakland A’s won the World Series that fall, beating the Dodgers with guys like Sal Bando, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi.

Oakland outfielder Reggie Jackson had nicknamed the team’s 9-year-old batboy “Hammer” because of his resemblance to Hank Aaron. The kid had been invited to be a batboy after owner Charlie Finley noticed him in the coliseum parking lot, where he would bring his boombox and dance while the crowds were coming in.

Little Hammer put on a uniform and fetched bats while working on the side as a deejay at parties. When he launched his career as a rapper, he took the name M.C. Hammer.

Tom House retired, then became the Rangers’ pitching coach and helped Nolan Ryan get into the best shape of his life, extending his Hall-of-Fame career.

I happened to be at the Rangers’ game Aug. 6, 1992, when Nolan got thrown out, for the only time in his career, for hitting Willie Wilson of the – you guessed it – Oakland A’s.

There was almost a riot, but in the end, nobody ran on the field, clothed or otherwise.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” James Earl Jones said in the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Makes perfect sense to me.

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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