We need a slugger bigger than himself

So Barry Bonds finally reached 714 home runs. Once a seemingly unapproachable number locked up by a mythical hero, No. 714 won't be honored in any official way by Major League Baseball. That's appropriate; as Commissioner Bud Selig says, there's no reason to celebrate passing the guy in second place on the all-time home-run list, even if his name was Babe Ruth. The real record, 755, is owned by Hank Aaron.

But there's another reason why we shouldn't celebrate Mr. Bonds's ascent to 714, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the slugger lied about using steroids. Rather it's about staying focused on the true meaning of 714, and in doing so, honoring the man who became an unwitting part of the civil rights movement.

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record on a cool Atlanta night in April 1974. When he swung at a fastball down the middle of the plate from the Dodgers' Al Downing, and lofted No. 715 into the Braves' bullpen, it should have been the culmination of a joyous race (like that of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's chase 24 years later). But what Aaron endured was infinitely more than the largely self-inflicted ridicule Bonds experiences as he swings for the fences. Aaron risked his life for No. 714, and his courage in quietly facing down the ugliest of threats is worth remembering now.

In 1972, I learned from the local sports pages that Hank, my longtime hero, was getting racially motivated hate mail as he neared Babe's record. I was a sophomore in high school at the time, and the news shocked and angered me. I wrote Hank a fan letter, urging him on, and telling him to ignore the racists.

A few weeks later, I received a letter with an Atlanta postmark. "Dear Sandy," the letter began. "I want you to know how very much I appreciate the concern and best wishes of people like yourself. If you will excuse my sentimentality, your letter of support meant much more to me than I can adequately express in words...."

The signature, in blue ink, read: "Most sincerely, Hank Aaron."

A generation later, when I wrote a book about what Aaron endured, I learned more about the hate mail - literally tons of it - and the death threats he received.

One letter writer declared: "You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. My gun will be watching your every black move." Another declared he was not sure if he would assassinate Aaron with a handgun from a box seat in Philadelphia, or with a rifle from the bleachers in Montreal.

Cubs' manager Dusty Baker, the former Dodger who was then a young teammate of Aaron's in Atlanta, told me that on one such night, when the alleged assassin was to be wearing a red coat, Aaron took him and fellow teammate Ralph Garr aside and told them if they didn't want to sit next to him, he'd understand. The two young ballplayers stayed beside Aaron that night, "but the whole game, Ralph and I were looking around for some guy with a red coat, and Hank wasn't even paying attention!"

During his chase, Aaron had a 24-hour bodyguard. He stayed in a separate hotel where food was secretly brought to his room. He spoke regularly with the FBI. Given all this, his focus on the record - his willingness to risk his life every time he stepped into the batter's box - is what defined a hero in an era where sports and civil rights were intertwined.

Thirty-two years after Aaron broke the record, less toxic, more subtle racial issues seem to be at play in some of the anger at Bonds. Bonds, after all, is a difficult brooding, man, quite unlike the smiling, blow-a-kiss Sosa, who seemed happy to play sidekick to McGwire in their 1998 chase. Sosa "played the American psyche so well. He understood that if he was in any way threatening or boasting about how he was going to 'get' this guy, he would have been rejected by the American public...," says African-American psychologist Alvin Poussaint. "Even with slavery," he adds, "black men in particular learned that if you were accommodating, and looked the other way ... you were rewarded."

Bonds has never played to that happy type, and this may explain some of the anger at the slugger. Yet Bonds has created many of his own problems. By all indications, enraged at the lesser Sosa and McGwire during their 1998 chase, he pumped himself up for posterity.

So 714 shouldn't mean much anyway. But we should remember Hank Aaron, and the time when the chase for 714 stood for something.

Sandy Tolan is author of "Me and Hank" and more recently "The Lemon Tree." He teaches international reporting at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.

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