A Baseball Parable
David Batstone on Culture
Controversial baseball slugger Barry Bonds is poised to break the magic 714 mark of career home runs set long ago by the legendary Babe Ruth. The pursuit of the San Francisco Giants star is tainted by charges that Bonds regularly used performance-enhancing drugs (steroids). When he passes the Babe, Bonds still would lie 40 home runs behind the all-time home run king, Henry Aaron.
On the radio this week in San Francisco, sportscaster John Miller told a fascinating tale about what happened to Hank Aaron’s final home run ball, #755. Aaron spent the last two years of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers. It was somewhat of a farewell tour, since Aaron played nearly a decade in Milwaukee with the Braves before the team – and Aaron - moved to Atlanta.
Nothing eventful marked Aaron’s final swat at the time. It happened during a game in the middle of the 1976 season, and both the Brewers and their opponents that day, the Angels, sat at the bottom of the league ladder. About 10,000 fans were scattered throughout the stadium. Aaron came up in the 7th inning and jumped on a hanging slider thrown by Angels’ pitcher Dick Drago. The ball sailed over the left field fence.
As the ball rattled around beyond the fence, groundskeeper Richard Arndt jogged over and retrieved it. After the game, the management of the Brewers made an effort to obtain the ball from Arndt. Knowing the season was to be Aaron’s last, the club realized that every homer had the potential to be historic. Arndt told the club that he would forfeit the ball on one condition: He wanted to meet Aaron personally and deliver the ball to him.
Not only did the management refuse his request, they fired Arndt as a groundskeeper, effective immediately. To add insult to injury, the club docked $5 from his final paycheck to cover the cost of the ball. Arndt walked out with his dignity and #755 intact.
Once the season ended without another Aaron home run, the value of Arndt’s ball increased dramatically. Aaron himself tried to make contact with the former groundskeeper to negotiate a financial arrangement, but Arndt decided to keep possession of the ball in a safe deposit box.
Then, after several years passed, Arndt made a bold and savvy move. Well-known retired ballplayers make a significant income attending large sports shows to sign autographs for paying customers. Arndt paid $20 to stand in line – anonymously, of course - to have Aaron sign the historic ball. An unwitting Aaron added his autograph to the ball, and the value of #755 increased yet again.
In 1999, Arndt decided to put the ball up for sale and an undisclosed buyer put up $650,000. Arndt finally received just payment due on his severance from the Milwaukee Brewers. To his credit, Arndt donated 25% of the proceeds of the sale to Chasing the Dream Foundation, a project that Aaron set up for underprivileged children to help them develop their artistic talents.
The story of home run ball #755 has all the character of a parable. Heed the message, managers. Ponder long and hard before firing a talented employee. It may be that the deposed one will walk out the door with a valuable asset. However much you later long to recover it, a treasure once spurned rarely returns back home.