In the early days of the game, when the ball was less lively and the ballparks generally had large outfields, most home runs were of the inside-the-park variety. Hence, the home "run" was literally descriptive. FAST RUNNERS hit home runs. Speed was more important than strength.
Home runs are among the most popular aspects of baseball, and as a result, prolific home run hitters are usually the most popular among fans and consequently the highest paid by teams - hence the old saying "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, and single hitters drive Fords".
We recently lost one of the best Cadillac drivers of all time, Hank Aaron.
Aaron (then age 39) ended the 1973 season one home run short of the record. He hit home run 713 on September 29, 1973, and with one day remaining in the season, many said his only fear was that he would not live to see the 1974 season. Aaron was the recipient of death threats and large assortments of hate mail during the 1973-1974 offseason. Many newspapers quietly had an obituary written, afraid that Aaron might be murdered before he could hit 715.
When I was young, I read a book about Hank Aaron and it had his home address in the book. You could mail a self-addressed, pre-stamped envelope to his home - and he would return an autograph. Stop and pause for a second. You could send mail to the home of Hank Aaron, and get a reply, with an authentic autograph. Ah yes, the world was a much simpler place when I was a kid.
Many years after his retirement, I met Hank in person. He was a spokesperson for cellular phones, and we were pursuing Hank to do a TV commercial. I called the phone number expecting to get a receptionist. "This is Hank" was the voice on the phone. He answered the phone himself - on the second ring, and we spoke for almost an hour. He was an amazing businessman, and he was concerned about how his brand would be represented.
I did not think about Hank for many years, and with his passing this past week, my flood of memories hit me. I still have his autograph from when I was playing Little League. I still have the copy of the signed agreement for the TV spot for Cellular One. When I did finally meet Hank in person, he was many years into retirement from the game.
After Barry Bonds hit his record-breaking 756th home run on August 7, 2007 Aaron made a surprise appearance on the JumboTron video screen at AT&T Park in San Francisco to congratulate Bonds on the accomplishment:
"I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974 is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."
When I met Hank in person, I jokingly said "I've hit a few home runs in my day." Hank smiled, paused and said to me: "More than one? A few? Then you know how it feels to be a home run hitter. Now go hit 'em in life." I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. Now go hit 'em in life.
Chasing dreams. Hitting Home Runs. Living a life of integrity, honesty. Paying it forward.
I pause here and reflect how of the two men, Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron, only one of the two has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Aaron was reluctant to attend any celebration of a new home run records, based upon his personal conviction that baseball is not about breaking records, but simply playing to the best of one's potential.
Life lessons all around. Play Ball!