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We need a slugger bigger than himself

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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.


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