Aug

08

Jet had right read on Aaron

Posted by : admin | On : August 8, 2010

As journalism’s painful transition from print to digital distribution shakes out, I hope there will still be room for Jet magazine.

 

It’s easy, I guess, to make fun of Jet and its sister publication Ebony for having had essentially the same basic layouts for more than 50 years, or to say there’s no need for black-oriented publications in the 21st century.

 

Certainly these venerable titles will have to continue to reinvent themselves, especially online, where sites like The Root have shown the way — but it’s also pretty obvious that this is hardly a “post-racial” society.  Ask Shirley Sherrod.

 

A pensive Hank Aaron as seen in Sept. 5, 1968 issue of Jet

African-Americans might not have as much in common as they did decades ago, but that doesn’t mean their experiences are entirely enmeshed with those of the “mainstream” culture.  Asians, Hispanics and other people of color have publications targeting them specifically, but of course they also consume general-interest media.  Why should it be otherwise with blacks?

Aside from any of this — the fact is that Jet is one of our cultural icons, and should be preserved if at all possible. At its best, it has been a magazine that has jumped out in front  to get to the truth of a story long before the mainstream media grasped it. That’s going to be a theme I’ll return to often in this blog.

Because I’ve been thinking about him, given certain events of the last week, I’ll start with Jet’s coverage of the most underrated baseball player of all time, Hank Aaron.

Yes, Aaron is underrated. I don’t know how else to characterize what has happened to the man who should probably still be Major League Baseball’s home run king, remains its all-time leader in runs batted in, extra base hits and total bases, and ranks among its top five in hits, runs scored, at-bats and games played. Willie Mays seems to be more widely regarded as the “greatest living player.” Bill James, the most influential baseball theorist of the last 35 years, doesn’t even consider Aaron among the top 10 players of all time. On James’ list of the greatest 100 players, last updated in 2001, he ranks Aaron 12th.

When Jet profiled Aaron for its June 18, 1959 issue, he was typically seen as just a slow, countrified Negro who just used his natural abilities to hit the ball.

Jet, however, showed a picture of the 25-year-old Aaron with a movie projector, with a caption that read: “Using scientific approach to hitting, Aaron views films of self.”

What most baseball writers saw as blandness or laziness in Aaron’s demeanor was more accurately summed up in the profile’s quote from teammate Wes Covington. “He’s the most unemotional ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” Covington said. “Home runs or outs, he comes back to the dugout with the same disposition.” That approach allowed Aaron to remain so remarkably consistent during a 22-year career.

Jet, speculating that Aaron was poised to hit .400 in 1959 (he ended up at .355, winning the National League batting title) called him “the most feared slugger in the game” at a time when that description was usually being applied to Mays or Mickey Mantle.

The magazine was still ahead of the pack by the time of a September 1968 Aaron profile, this time gauging that baseball’s premier player was also one of its angriest.

In his autobiography, Aaron remembers the article as running in 1966, apparently becausehe was dissatisfied with a number of things by then. His marriage was crumbling. He hadn’t wanted to leave Milwaukee. He didn’t like the Braves’ new general manager, Paul Richards. And he’d just about had it with casually racist assumptions of the era.

“In a strange way, it seemed that returning to the South took some of the boy from Mobile out of me and replaced it with a man who was weary of the way things were. I was tired of being invisible. I was the equal of any ballplayer in the world, damnit [sic], and if nobody was going to give me my due, it was time to grab for it….

 

“I suppose that first year or two in Atlanta was when I made up my mind that if I ever got close to Babe Ruth’s record for home runs, it was going to be mine.”*

 

* “I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler, HarperCollins Publishing, 1991, p. 260.

Against this backdrop, Aaron was candid with Jet’s Roscoe Harrison.

“Baseball is like stagnant water, going nowhere as far as former major-league Negro ball-players are concerned,” he charged. “Baseball hasn’t done anything for the Negro after he gets out…There are a lot of qualified Negroes that could fill managerial posts such as Jackie Robinson, Billy Bruton and Ernie Banks.”

 

Aaron went on to say that the baseball establishment expected blacks to be “grateful” for an opportunity that Jackie Robinson “went through hell” to take advantage of.

Jet got the Aaron story right, long before almost anybody else understood there was one.

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