Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The impossible task of appreciating Hank Aaron: An amazing player and a better man

The Greatest with the other greatest, Ali & Aaron, in 2001. Ali once said Hank was “the only man I idolize more than myself.”
The Greatest with the other greatest, Ali & Aaron, in 2001. Ali once said Hank was “the only man I idolize more than myself.”
Image: Getty Images

The great Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, one of baseball’s greatest players, died on Friday morning.

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If baseball had a Mount Rushmore, Aaron, the game’s onetime home run king, would surely be on it. But as great a player as he was, he might rank even higher among the game’s gentlemen.

“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Terry McGuirk, Braves chairman, said in a statement. “He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development, and always with our community efforts. His incredible talent and resolve helped him achieve the highest accomplishments, yet he never lost his humble nature. Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world. His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts.”

Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in the heart of the Deep South: Mobile, Ala.

Aaron began his pro baseball career with the Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns, signing for $200 a month in 1951. After one year, in which he hit .366, Aaron got offers from major league teams, and he signed with the Milwaukee Braves.

The Braves signed him even though he had been batting cross-handed. As a right-handed batter, he hit with his left hand on top.

“One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.”

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Whatever hand was on top, Aaron probably had the quickest wrists of any batter in history. He might have been the greatest fastball hitter, too:

“I looked for the same pitch my whole career — a breaking ball. All of the time. I never worried about the fastball. They couldn’t throw it past me, none of them.”

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The great pitcher Curt Simmons said of him: “Trying to throw a fastball past Hank Aaron was like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster.”

Aaron was a complete player, part of the wave of Black stars (Wilie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks among them) who took over the game after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

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Aaron began his assault on the record books in 1954, hitting .280 with 13 home runs as a 20-year-old. The next year, he changed his uniform number from 5 to 44, and he hit .314 with 26 homers. Because of Aaron, superstars in all sports would start to wear 44, including fellow Mobile, Ala., native Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Jerry West and George Gervin. At age 22, he won the first of two batting titles, hitting .328 with 26 home runs.

Boxing great Muhammad Ali once called Aaron: “The only man I idolize more than myself.”

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In 1957, as a right fielder, Aaron had the first signature season of his career. He hit .322 and matched his uniform number with 44 home runs, something he would do three more times in his career. He led the league in runs, RBIs and total bases, and won his only World Series title as the Braves beat the Yankees. He also earned his nickname: “Hammerin’ Hank.”

Aaron won the MVP that year, the only one of his career, although he would seemingly repeat that season for the next 16 years.

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In 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta. He hit his 400th home run that season, and hit No. 500 two years later.

“Honestly, I was scared coming to a high-profile city like Atlanta,” Aaron told an Atlanta TV station. “Knowing that Dr. King was here, Andy Young and some of the other great civil rights leaders that made their home here, and I’m coming from Milwaukee where there was no activity at all ... It makes you start thinking about what it is, what can you do, what role you can play. And makes you feel like you kind of shortchanged everybody really, you didn’t do your job.

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“To be honest with you, I felt a little ashamed of myself, because I was so far back in the sticks, in the woods, that I didn’t know what was going on. It kind of made me start thinking, realizing that, regardless of what I achieved in life, no matter whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, life, lawyers, whatever it may be, that I still had a role to play.”

In 1970, he became the first player in history to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. (Babe Ruth only reached 2,873 hits.)

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As the numbers piled up, it became clear that he was a threat to break Ruth’s cherished lifetime HR mark of 714. The pressure of breaking Ruth’s single season mark nearly drove Roger Maris to a nervous breakdown in 1961. As a Black man chasing the career mark of the game’s most beloved player, Aaron had it worse. He started getting death threats from racists.

After finishing the 1973 season with 713 home runs, just one short of the record, Aaron received one million pieces of mail. Many of them were supportive, but the death threats were numerous. One read:

“Dear Hank Aaron,

Retire or DIE!!! The Atlanta Braves will be moving around the country and I’ll move with them …”

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Hank wasn’t the only one to be affected by such hate:

“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

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Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974 against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing in Atlanta. After the ball went over the fence, two men jumped onto the field. It was a scary moment, but they were there to celebrate, not harm him.

“When the guys ran out on the field, it was the scary part,” Aaron’s son Lary Aaron said. We didn’t know who they were.”

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He ended the year with 733 home runs, and moved back to Milwaukee with the newly formed Brewers for two more seasons, finishing with 755.

When Barry Bonds broke his record in 2007, Aaron was magnanimous, and recorded a video tribute for the occasion. But many consider Bonds’ mark to be tainted due to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

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“As far as I’m concerned, Hank Aaron is the all-time home run champ, and Roger Maris should still have the [single-season] record at 61, but Barry Bonds is the name you see in the record book,” 500-home run man Harmon Killebrew said.

Aaron at one time suggested that Bonds should have an asterisk next to his mark, but in an interview last year, he said he did consider Bonds to be the home run king, and that he should go into the Hall of Fame.

Even without the HR title, Aaron’s numbers are simply staggering. He had 3,771 hits, third all time. He scored 2,174 runs (fourth all time), 2,297 RBIs (first) and 6.856 total bases (first). Even though it wasn’t a stat at the time, he racked up the WAR: 143.1 (fifth all-time among position players). It should also be noted that MLB’s recent decision to count Negro League stats, his final record was really 760 home runs, with the 5 he hit crosshanded as a teenager.

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Aaron also won three Gold Gloves. Baseball writer Joe Posnanski, who rated Aaron as the fourth-best player of all time, noted that holding the home run record overshadowed all of Aaron’s other talents, and featured this quote from Aaron:

“You know, if I had to pay to go see somebody play for one game, I wouldn’t pay to see Hank Aaron. I wasn’t flashy. I didn’t start fights. I didn’t rush out to the mound every time a pitch came near me. I didn’t hustle after fly balls that were 20 rows back in the seats.”

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“But,” he added, “if I had to pay to see someone play in a three-game series, I’d rather see me.”

In 2017, Aaron defended Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed by the NFL for kneeling to peacefully protest police violence against Black people. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Aaron said Kaepernick deserved a shot to play again and that he wished other players would stand with him:

“The thing that bothers me about this whole situation is he’s gone to all these camps, and nobody seems to think he stands a chance of being No. 1. Here’s a young player who almost carried a team to the championship, to the Super Bowl...I think that somebody needs to give this young man a chance,” Aaron said. “I think this decision is coming from the owners. I don’t think it’s coming from general managers.”

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Recently, Aaron was part of an effort to show Black Americans that the COVID-19 vaccine was safe.

Getting vaccinated “makes me feel wonderful,” Aaron told The Associated Press. “I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this ... It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.’

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His last public act was an attempt to help others. He may not have the home run record anymore, but he’ll always be a king.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.