Friday, July 20, 2007

Regarding Henry...or Hank

Barry Bonds had a particularly good day in Chicago on Thursday. Bonds hit two home runs to bring his career total to 753 - two shy of the career record of 755 hit by Henry Aaron between 1954 and 1976. We can argue about who the greatest of them all is (some fat guy hit 714 between 1914 and 1935), but this isn't about him.

This is about Aaron. And I suppose a little bit about a five year-old boy who saw it happen at his family home in Mahopac.

I can tell you very little about the rest of the Monday, but I can tell you that when Henry Aaron hit that home run, I was standing at the beginning of our hallway - the one that connected the bedrooms to the living room. We had the big TV on. You know the one - the kind that you had in the 70's that looked like it was its own piece of furniture. I can also tell you that NBC carried the game live for all of America to see that night - with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek on the call. I can also tell you that I can remember my siblings being nearby, but can't remember where my parents were. I picture my brother sitting in my father's recliner (which was Bunker-like in that nobody sat in Archie's chair) and my sister on the couch. My best guess is that my dad had gone to bed, as he got up early to go drive the truck for Burack's plumbing supplies, and my mom was either in the kitchen, dining room, or sitting in her chair in the living room. I can also tell you, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was sorry that Hank Aaron had passed Babe Ruth. Not because of any racial sillyness, or because of any societal things, but because of one...simple...fact.

Babe Ruth was a Yankee. Case closed.

Thirty-three years makes for a lot of water under that bridge. As I said, we can argue who the greatest home run hitter is, but it makes no difference. Now as I sit here, a guardian of so many things about the game, and an historian to boot, I feel sad at the thought of Aaron's record falling to the hands of a questionable successor. Aaron played the game as well as anyone, in the large anonymity of first Milwaukee and then Atlanta. He was so well-regarded by his peers, and was so damaged by the hatred and idiocy of the racism of the early 70's. He was proud, and sometimes too proud and too bitter at what took place. Having never walked in number 44's shoes, I have no right to criticize. I would say that I thought he didn't allow himself to be as proud as he could have been. Indeed he seemed anything but jovial when talking about his accomplishments and frankly came off as whiny for many years. Now he is pure class and grace.

He also deserves to hold on to the record but unfortunately they are made to be broken - fairly or otherwise. We'll watch Barry Bonds break it - be it live or on some highlight, and we'll be sickened in the way that the various broadcasters call the moment - be it Joe Buck (who will likely get to do it on FOX) or Jon Miller (with either ESPN or the Giants radio network) or whomever else, and there are some wonderful voices that will have the opportunity. I hope - for their sake and for the sake of history, that they give it the full treatment and tell the story that should be told.

With all of that in mind, I have a little audio treat for you from my vast repository of broadcasting minutiae. There are three known play-by-play calls of Aaron's 715th and I have all three. The first is the NBC call by Curt Gowdy, and I apologize for the background music. It was part of a special on sports television, but it serves its purpose. The call is basic Gowdy - excited yet content to let the picture tell the story. I've never heard much more of this broadcast.

The second is the most famous call - by Milo Hamilton, then working on the Braves radio network. A hall-of-famer (in that he won the Ford Frick Award in 1992), Hamilton's call is robust and over-the-top. In other words, it is the local broadcaster's call. I've never been a fan of it, but I'm one who has often criticized the verbal vomit of "The Giants Win the Pennant!" from Russ Hodges in 1951. And yes, don't even get me started on John Sterling. Most seem to like Milo's call, so I'm just being a critic.

The third call is, to me, the best - by far. It's from Vin Scully (you thought I was going to say Gary Cohen?) on the Dodgers radio network and it is called just like anything else Scully has ever called. Having listened to hours of his work, I know that Vin would have called this moment the same way if he was the Atlanta broadcaster. It is pure poetry. Listen to the details - how pitcher Al Downing needs to "stay a professional", how Scully lets at least 26 seconds go by without uttering a word following the home run. Scully, like many of his followers, believes in letting the crowd tell the story and the background noise is all one needs to hear. Following that (some have said Scully left his seat to go get a cup a water) he returns to tell the listeners of "what a marvelous moment" it is. "A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South." Who can argue that?

I hope each of the men who has a chance to call this historic home run that is due any day now, takes the time to consider what it will be like. For they are not the star of the moment, but their voices will be attached to it for eternity. One call will likely stand out over the rest, as Milo Hamilton's has. One wonders why we don't often hear a lot of Vin Scully's great calls and the short answer is that he wasn't into making himself the story. He, as we've indicated, liked to let the crowd tell us everything. In this case, Barry Bonds won't be the star either, and that is unfortunate, but he has only himself to blame. The fact is that if only "Barroid" had been a bit more lovable; a bit more honest, then fans might be ready to accept him as the new home run king. People have been far more receptive to Jason Giambi and that is because he has shown himself to be more forthcoming and even a touch more naive. There's something likable about him. Bonds, as he showed during All-Star Week in HIS HOME BALLPARK, came off badly. So now we find ourselves pondering what a mess the game of baseball is at times, and wishing Bonds would hit this thing and get over with.

Chris Russo has suggested that pitchers are going to avoid Bonds and I disagree. Pitchers like to challenge, or at least they should. I imagine they're going to do their part to get Bonds out and move on, but they'll tip their cap to him if he gets the best of them. Al Downing has never had a problem having his claim to fame be allowing Aarons' 715th.

Yet just when you think we'd be talking about Barry Bonds...along comes Ron Mexico (also known as Michael Vick) and a new entry into our sports blotter - an apparent crooked referee in the National Basketball Association. Truly proud times for all sports fans, eh?

So Henry Aaron, or Hank Aaron, or Mr. Hammer - here's to you, sir. Thanks for representing baseball and the coveted home run record so well for 33 years. Believe me, real fans know the deal about who the real home run kings are.

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