On Tuesday night, the Atlanta Braves celebrated the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron‘s 715th home run, which catapulted him past Babe Ruth for Major League Baseball’s all-time record for career home runs. Aaron’s career was finished following the 1976 season, and, while Barry Bonds and his asterisk-filled resume was able to pass him on the home run list, Aaron still holds the major league record for RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856).
There are many numbers that people remember about baseball:
4,256. Pete Rose – career hits.
714. Babe Ruth – career home runs.
2,632. Cal Ripken, Jr. – consecutive games played.
511. Cy Young – career pitching wins.
61. Roger Maris – home runs in 1961.
755 is also one of those numbers that is burned into the minds of baseball fans; however, it was replaced by a new record for career home runs, established on August 7, 2007, when Bonds’ 756th bomb left AT&T Park in San Francisco. Bonds would be blackballed from baseball after the 2007 season, leaving the game with 762 career home runs and a legacy tarnished by perjury charges and his link to performance-enhancing drug use.
This morning in my drive home from dropping off my daughter at school, Mike and Mike, the morning ESPN Radio show, were discussing the importance of Aaron’s numbers and what they mean to baseball today. Mike Golic made an excellent point – why can’t baseball throw away the performance-enhancing drug numbers the way that track and field does? When an athlete sets a record, wins a medal, or any other significant merits that are later tarnished by allegations and proof of cheating, those awards and records are stripped, as if they never happened. If baseball wants to keep their records clean, they, led by commissioner Bud Selig, had and have the opportunities to do such a thing. Considering the MLB Player’s Association’s unwillingness to support Barry Bonds when he was unable to find a job after the 2007 season, it would appear that the removal of records would be something that could be easily accomplished by MLB leadership.
The integrity of the game and its records have been tarnished by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. I have long felt that Major League Baseball has had plenty of celebrated miscreants within the game, including racists, womanizers, and cheaters (Ty Cobb, Ruth, and Gaylord Perry fit those descriptions perfectly), while drugs, including “greenies” and cocaine, ran rampant throughout the game for many years undetected and overlooked. After the 1994 player’s strike, the league seemed to be perfectly happy with the home run numbers increasing and the turnstiles producing record numbers, huge revenue, and new stadiums for the good ol’ boy network of owners. Suddenly, those same home runs weren’t as attractive, and the league went after Sammy Sosa, Bonds, and Mark McGwire, instead of acknowledging that they helped to save the game. So, now that the league has moved on from the men who helped to bring it back from the dead and they’re bringing in billions of dollars in revenue through Major League Baseball Advanced Media and lucrative television contracts, they can continue to turn their back on their one-time heroes like Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire, while allowing the Hall of Fame to become a mockery of a museum thanks in large part to the attention-starved writers who now make up the voting oligarchy of Cooperstown.
So, while Hank Aaron was and continues to be a living legend and icon in the sport, is it really fair for his number, 755, to continue to be the measuring stick of power in baseball when that number has been surpassed? No…but it doesn’t mean that it has to go away and that 762 is the only number that needs to be remembered. The 714 home runs that Babe Ruth hit are still an important number in baseball, as are the 660 that Willie Mays hit.
There isn’t an asterisk needed for Barry Bonds because there wasn’t one needed for Ruth’s number to be important. Regardless of the drugs that helped Bonds produce into his 40’s, baseball remains a numbers game. We don’t put asterisks on the numbers that players put up prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Wouldn’t baseball have been more competitive, as it is today, with the world’s best players on one stage, and not just the top white players?
Hank Aaron’s 755 will live on and his legacy of powerful longevity within Major League Baseball will last well beyond his lifetime. His number will remain meaningful as long as his story does, just as others have heard about and learned to love players from well before their lifetimes. There aren’t many who look back at the production that Ruth put up in his career without being awestruck, and the same will remain true for future baseball fans who won’t even see a game until the year 2214. Why? Because baseball remains meaningful, the players remain meaningful, and the numbers remain meaningful to those who love and are passionate about the game.