The Terrifying Power of Hank Aaron’s Racism

Hank Aaron is a racist now, or so say conservatives who are apoplectic over remarks that Hammerin’ Hank made in a USA Today article commemorating the 40th anniversary of his home run record. This is all very confusing, because earlier this week, we learned of the “terrifying power” of calling someone a racist, which is what Aaron is accused of doing to all Republicans, so who, exactly, is the terrifying one here? Is everybody terrifying now?

When conservatives stop producing their own personal Piss Christs over Aaron’s comments, they should read the whole article, because there’s a great fact, buried in there, that perfectly illustrates what he was trying to say.

In sensational headlines, Aaron’s remarks are being characterized as a direct comparison of the modern Republican Party to the Ku Klux Klan, but a fair reading of his comments would seem to indicate a narrower point. He was being asked why he kept the nasty, racist death threats he received while pursuing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, and here’s the passage that’s getting all of the attention:

“To remind myself,” Aaron tells USA TODAY Sports, “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.

“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.

“The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Maybe he was referring to all Republicans, but to me, these sound like separate, if related, thoughts. The Republicans’ treatment of President Obama is an indication that not enough has changed, and the kinds of people who sent him death threats in 1974 are no longer wearing Klan robes. It doesn’t sound at all like he’s saying they’re the same thing. It’s still not a ringing endorsement, but the reaction has been telling. If calling all Republicans racist is, itself, racist, then are Republicans saying that all Republicans are white? Or that only white people wear neckties and starched shirts? Not to terrify anyone, but that sounds kinda racist.

There’s one thing that Hammerin’ Hank was definitely trying to say, which is that where race is concerned, things haven’t changed as much as we think they have. In 2014, we are still arguing over whether the Washington NFL team should continue calling itself the “Redskins,” which is a timely echo of this tidbit about Aaron’s conquest of the record books, from the same article (emphasis mine):

After walking on five pitches in his first at-bat, Aaron lunged forward and swung at a high 1-0 fastball. The ball soared toward the left-center-field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Left fielder Bill Buckner jumped up, and the ball went over his head.

It was 9:07 p.m., and history was made.

Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers at the time, celebrated in his office. Billy Williams, a Hall of Fame outfielder who grew up with Aaron, remembers the thrill of watching the moment on TV.

Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s commissioner, was in Cleveland attending a meeting of the Wahoo Club.

The Wahoo Club, named for the Cleveland Indians’ cartoon logo, a grinning Native American caricature. Not mentioned in the USA Today article, though, was the fact that pretty much every one of the record-setting home runs that Hank Aaron hit at home were presided over by Chief Noc-A-Homa, a teepee-dwelling mascot who would come out and do a dance whenever the home team knocked a homer.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.”

Sounds about right.