Babe Ruth’s Record was a Mythical Monument of White Superiority. Hank Aaron Tore it DownRoundup
tags: civil rights, baseball, sports, African American history, Hank Aaron
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.
The first preserve of white supremacy in American sports was the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, claimed by the emperor of masculinity, the mythological hero of rugged individualism. Jim Jeffries, who filmmaker Ken Burns reminded was to have kept a grizzly bear as a pet and drank a case of whiskey over two days to cure himself of pneumonia, embodied all of that. So much so that when he was lured out of retirement in 1910 as the Great White Hope to wrest the championship back from Jack Johnson, the first Black man allowed to challenge for the title, the cameras filming their fight stopped rolling — on purpose, by order — in the 15th round as Johnson leveled Jeffries to the ground. The country, it was decided before the match, wasn’t prepared to see such a blow to the racial order.
The fight promoters were prescient. White rioters attacked Black revelers from countryside to city as news of a Black man’s toppling of Jeffries wafted across the nation.
The second preserve of white supremacy in American sports, one far longer-lasting, was the home run. As baseball writer and commentator Tom Verducci once described it in Sports Illustrated, “The home run is America.”
Which explained why Hank Aaron, a Black son of Mobile, Ala., became the target of virulent epistolary racists as he waged his assault in the 1970s on the venerated, generations-old baseball record established by Babe Ruth.
Baseball, after all, was anointed America’s pastime, no matter that it imitated the worst of this country by segregating itself by race. As French American cultural essayist Jacques Barzun observed, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” And Ruth, whom sportswriters once recalled with glee being chased naked down the aisle of a train car by an equally naked and knife-wielding woman, was as wildly representative of white masculinity on the baseball diamond as was Jeffries in the ring.
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