Aaron still getting snub of Ruthian proportions

May 25, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

WASHINGTON -- I have spent the past month or so confused about what I thought was an indisputable baseball truth: Who is the major league home run king?

I was under the delusion that it was the player with the most career home runs, Hank Aaron. I've recently been apprised of my mistake, though. It's Babe Ruth, the guy whose "record" Barry Bonds has been "chasing."

I had expected a deluge of feature stories, profiles and recollections about the home run king -- and diatribes against the injustice of Bonds' tainted pursuit. I just hadn't expected them so soon, and about that player. But with this rush to defend the legacy of the player who's 41 homers shy of No. 1, I could only come to this conclusion: In baseball's new math, 714 is more than 755. The sport that has always worshiped numbers now worships myths.

That stinks. Doesn't it?

Yes, a not-unexpected ally said yesterday. He was sitting in the Nationals dugout at RFK Stadium, he actually played at the same time Aaron did, and he might have some perspective on this. His name is Frank Robinson.

"You always hear about 714, Babe Ruth, and then, `Oh, Hank Aaron. He had the most, 755.' But ..." and Robinson raised one hand above the other, "it's not Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth ..." then he lifted the other hand above the other, "it's Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron. And that's the way it is. He's not the home run king in people's minds."

He was just getting warmed up. He knows what kind of player Aaron was. He knows what kind of era they both played in -- "a lot of good players, good players, not just a handful of them, a lot of them" -- and knows what they all went through. Robinson, Aaron and other legends of their time helped integrate the game, and along the way, they integrated the record books.

What they didn't do was integrate enough minds about who truly was the best -- or even about what period of baseball history was the best. Robinson never said the words "black" or "white." He didn't have to.

"He's a player who hasn't gotten credit for what he did, until he broke the home run record," Robinson said of Aaron. "Then, it was like, `OK, he did it.' Then people said, `Well, he had X number of at-bats more than Babe Ruth.' What difference does that make? Babe Ruth had X number of at-bats more than someone else before him.

"And then they'd say, `Well, he played 24 years and Babe Ruth only played this number of years.' So what? If you go on that, a lot of people wouldn't get the credit they deserve for the records they broke. There's no such thing as saying `You have to break a record in a certain number of time.' "

He wasn't done.

Ruth, he said, "was good for baseball at a time it really needed him. But still you have to give credit where it's due. To compare different eras is not fair. You have to look at the individual in the time that he's doing things, and judge him by that, not by what someone else did and when they did it.

"The way fans and the public and people thought about Babe Ruth -- he was a hero," Robinson continued. "If someone knocks a hero off his mantle, knocks the crown off the hero's head, a lot of people get upset. Hank Aaron had to endure that. He didn't get the things he deserved, and I don't think he'll ever get it."

That's depressing. And scary. And infuriating. Not necessarily to Robinson, who turns 71 this summer and now picks his spots. "Getting mad isn't going to get you anywhere," he said.

Someone has to carry the angry bat for him, then. No problem.

The fight about the sanctity of the record book should be starting now, with no one between Bonds and the man at the top of the list. The fury of the fans and purists and protectors of the game should be directed at the threat to Aaron's legacy; Ruth's legacy is safe, but his admirers have gone paranoid, insecure and nasty in his defense.

It is Aaron's story that should be told now, his highlights dusted off, his impact on the game and on society taught, his place in history defended. He is the one being wronged by Bonds' alleged cheating.

Instead, he has been wronged by the obsession with Ruth, three decades after having been punished by the same overzealous, hypersensitive Babe-o-philes, in the same ways, that are punishing Bonds now.

Those who disagree -- and many will, vehemently, out of habit -- ought to know that this isn't just one person venting. Those people also should sit down with Robinson, or one of the many others who played with Aaron and understand his futile battle against a ghost.

"The public has a big say in it, in how popular you are," Robinson said. "Hank wasn't a flashy ballplayer, wasn't one of those guys who was very charismatic. He just did it and made it look easy. He didn't get the publicity that he should have gotten.

"Didn't seek it, didn't get it," he said. "And it's hard to get it after the fact."

With what we've seen lately -- with Bonds "chasing" Ruth, but almost certain to wind down before he ever reaches the target of the real chase -- it won't be hard for Aaron to get credit.

It will be impossible.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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