Hank Aaron story touches all the bases

April 12, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Watching "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" is a lot like seeing Aaron hit one of his record 755 home runs.

The two-hour documentary, which will premiere at 8:05 tonight on cable channel TBS, takes its time settling into its rhythm -- just the way Aaron made himself comfortable in the batter's box, without grandstanding or hot dog theatrics.

Then, slowly but surely, it starts to hypnotize with easy, confident movements until the experience of watching feels like a dream. The sweetest moment of the dream is near the end, when one lightning-quick, incredibly smooth stroke on April 8, 1974, sends a ball climbing and climbing in a perfect white arc through the night.

Ultimately, "Chasing the Dream" is not as perfect as an Aaron home run, but it's close enough that anyone who cares about baseball, civil rights and/or American heroes ought to go out of his or her way to see it. "Chasing the Dream" is better, smarter and a whole lot shorter than Ken Burns' "Baseball" -- with none of the pretense or hype.

For those not familiar with Aaron, he is major league baseball's greatest home run hitter. Aaron is the man who, in a career from 1954 to 1976, broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs -- a record many thought would never be broken.

It is also important to note that Aaron is a black man, the last Negro Leaguer to play in the major leagues.

Race is central to "Chasing the Dream." The documentary opens with the all-too-recognizable montage of images from our shameful civil rights past: men in white hoods, attack dogs, burning crosses, blacks being hit with billy clubs by white law enforcement officers.

Initially, some viewers might think too much is being made of race in this documentary about a baseball player. But that's not true. Stay with it, because filmmaker Mike Tollin more than makes his case for positioning Aaron's on-field accomplishments within the context of the civil rights struggle in postwar America.

"Hank Aaron is a litmus test for racism in America," singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte says in the report. And he's not overstating the case by much.

Some viewers are going to be stunned during the last half-hour of the documentary when they see and hear the ugly racist threats made against Aaron as he closed in on Ruth's record.

Baltimore's Frank Robinson explains the racial hate by saying, "Babe Ruth was white. Hank Aaron was black. It was a black man threatening a record held by someone who was put up on a pedestal and looked upon as bigger than life."

Barbara Aaron, Aaron's ex-wife, shares a painful anecdote from those days, which suggests the emotional toll involved as Aaron achieved his incredible feat with racial epithets ringing in his ears.

"A man behind me [at the ballpark] kept calling Aaron a ______," Barbara Aaron says. "So, I got up and went to the concession stand. I got a hamburger and loaded it up with mustard and ketchup. And when he said it again, I put it in his face."

But "Chasing the Dream" is not all race. It's mainly baseball, glorious baseball. And unlike Burns' "Baseball," most of the talking heads in Tollin's report belong to ballplayers, not pseudo-intellectuals.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax says of Aaron, "For me, he was probably the best hitter, the toughest hitter to get out that I've ever faced."

That's high praise from one of the era's best pitchers. Aaron replies by saying Koufax gave him his all-time favorite nickname, "Bad Henry," because of what Aaron did to him with a baseball bat.

Tollin explains his interview choices, saying, "We have chosen to use the participants as the witnesses to history, as opposed to historians, academics and other uninvolved parties. If we're going to tell the story of Henry Aaron breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie because of an injury to Bobby Thomson, we're going to hear it from Bobby Thomson, not from someone who remembers reading a story about it in the New York Times."

Henry Aaron was not given the respect he deserved in Burns' version of baseball history last year on PBS. Tollin, executive producer Denzel Washington and TBS owner Ted Turner deserve extra credit for not only making a powerful documentary but also righting that wrong with "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream."

Instead of, "PBS: If we don't do it, who will?" maybe it should be: "TBS: If we don't do it, who will?"

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