The baseball world, and the world at large, is mourning the loss of the Hall of Fame baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron who passed away at the age of 86 on Friday night. The outpouring of grief and tributes are a testament to how inspiring a life he lived and the many people he touched.
“Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history – and find a way to shine like no other.”
Henry “Hank” Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama during the depression and Jim Crow era. The realities of growing up in the deep south meant the trauma of racism wormed its way into most aspects of life. There were times when Aaron had to duck behind objects or under the bed in his home narrowly escaping the Klan marches that frequently happened on his street. The clouds of racism darkened the most innocent of dreams. It was a childhood dream of Aaron to become a pilot. That dream was dashed when upon sharing it with his father, his father explained that there were no black pilots. After seeing Jackie Robinson play, Aaron then turned his attention to baseball. While his father said the same of there being no black baseball players, Hank pursued his dream anyway. He was more than a gifted player, he worked really hard at his craft practicing and studying throughout his entire career. He had every obstacle in front of him and scaled them all, just like the trees he used to climb to watch baseball games when he could not get a ticket. The racism he persevered throughout his career got so bad that he had to have a security detail the closer he got to breaking a record. The same went for his family at times.
After a brief stint with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League at the age of 17, he received a couple of MLB offers from Boston and New York. A fun fact is that had he opted to play with the New York Giants his teammate would have been Willie Mays. He played on the Milwaukee Braves (1954-1965), the Atlanta Braves (1966-1974), and the Milwaukee Brewers (1975-76). Nicknamed “Hammerin’ Hank” his accolades include being named the National League MVP in 1957. He was also The National League batting champion, National League home run leader, National League RBI leader, and National League Gold Glove winner multiple years. Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. Aaron had one of the longest baseball careers.
What Aaron is most known for was breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting more home runs than anyone had in the entirety of major league baseball history. In 1974 Aaron hit his 715th home run which passed Ruth’s record of 714. Aaron ultimately completed his career with 755 home runs. Throughout his career, Aaron received hate mail and death threats. As he approached Ruth’s record, he began to receive thousands upon thousands of hate mail daily. So much so that he set a Guiness World Record as a private citizen for the most fan mail received after getting 900,000 letters. It was estimated that a third of those letters, “were letters of hate engendered by his bettering of Babe Ruth’s career record.”
According to the Associated Press, prior to breaking the record Aaron said, “If I was white, all America would be proud of me. But I am Black.”
“…I had to break the record,” Aaron noted in his autobiography. “I had to do it for Jackie [Robinson], and my people and myself.”
Sadly, Aaron was never granted the peace to enjoy his accomplishment. In the biography that Howard Bryant penned, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” Aaron shared, “It still hurts a little bit inside because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again. I didn’t enjoy myself. It was hard for me to enjoy something that I had worked very hard for. God had given me the ability to play baseball, and people in this country kind of chipped away at me. So it was tough. And all of those things happened simply because I was a Black person.”
In 2007 Aaron’s home run record was eclipsed by Barry Bonds who finished his career with 762 home runs. Bonds later admitted to the use of steroids which is why Aaron, who never used any performance enhancing drugs, is still widely regarded as the home run career leader. While Aaron acknowledged Bonds’ achievement, an asterisk will remain by Bonds name. “I move over and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement,” Aaron stated. “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.” Aaron weighed in on the performance-enhancing drug conversation admitting that putting an asterisk beside players who are linked to using seems fair.
In recent years Aaron revealed that he actually kept a great deal of the hate mail he was sent. In a 2014 interview with USA Today he explained that he held onto the letters, “to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record.”
When asked if he felt like much had changed, he said, “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. The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
In a tribute to Aaron, Former President Barack Obama shared, “Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Humble and hardworking, Hank was often overlooked until he started chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, at which point he began receiving death threats and racist letters—letters he would reread decades later to remind himself “not to be surprised or hurt.’”
He went on to say, “Those letters changed Hank, but they didn’t stop him. After breaking the home run record, he became one of the first Black Americans to hold a senior management position in Major League Baseball. And for the rest of his life, he never missed an opportunity to lead—including earlier this month, when Hank and [wife] Billye joined civil rights leaders and got COVID vaccines.”
Former President Bill Clinton shared a statement saying, “With the passing of Hank Aaron, baseball has lost one of its greatest heroes, America has lost an inspiring role model and philanthropist, and I have lost a wonderful friend. Hank Aaron’s entire life was a home run.”
“The way to fame is like the way to heaven through much tribulations. It had been for me, to quote a very popular song, ‘a long and winding road.’” Hank Aaron said.
It was true that Aaron’s leadership and heroism extended beyond the baseball field as he used his platform to fight for racial/social justice while also pouring into communities that mattered to him.
He was a transformational figure who paved the way for the athletes of today as he stood bravely in the face of adversity. He was one of the pioneers of using his platform to call attention to the needs of his community.
As recently as earlier this month, Aaron, who has always raised concerns over the things that impact the black community, proudly joined civil rights leaders in getting the COVID-19 vaccine. After receiving the vaccine at the Morehouse School of Medicine Aaron told The Associated Press, “[Getting vaccinated] makes me feel wonderful. 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.”
Aaron summed up his desire for the impact that he hoped his legacy would have on people when he said, “I think people can look at me and say, he was a great baseball player, but he was even a greater human being.”