Class And Grace Personified: Home Run King Hank Aaron Dead At 86

We forget sometimes that our heroes will not live forever. Hank Aaron has passed away, but his actions and words and comportment truly helped change the world.

Aaron connects on an Al Dowling pitch April 8, 1974. MLB Films

I love Hank Aaron, as much as you can love a man you’ve never met. I love his humility. I love his honor. I love his dignity. I love his effort. I love his class.

His name was one of the first that I became aware of as a child when it came to baseball heroes. Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth. “Home Run King.” I didn’t know at the time what all he had to endure to obtain that title.

The death threats and letters might have been enough to scare away another man. But Henry “Hank” Aaron persevered, using every ounce of willpower, skill, bravery and natural-born strength to break Ruth’s home run record. Most of us would burn those letters or throw them in the trash. But not Aaron. He kept the letters, according to a 2019 story in Newsday by Steven Marcus. Occasionally he’d climb up in the attic and read them. They’d become a badge of courage in a way.

At the time he hit 715 to break Ruth’s record, I was a small child. It would be a few years before I would know he was baseball’s home run king and that that was something important. Later, what I still didn’t realize was what the mark meant, the price that was paid to obtain it, or what the feat meant to future generations of Americans. Only later —because of his will and talent— did I realize that he had indirectly taught millions of American girls and boys just like me what an awful thing racism is.

I can still remember when I first read an article about him, about the death threats he received, and how that made me feel as I tried to process the idea that people had actually threatened his life for trying to hit a baseball. It was not until much later of course that I came to understand that breaking Ruth’s mark was not the impetus behind those letters. It was, of course, cowardice wrapped up in fear by whites whose assertions that blacks were inferior would be metaphorically shot full of holes if he were to succeed. And those letters where they threatened to literally shoot him full of holes? I would not understand for years after that they were part of a historical, economical and familial pattern of actions by a group of people behaving wretchedly over the course of hundreds of years.

Atlanta was a very different different place in 1966 when the Milwaukee Braves moved there. Segregation was still in effect and whites still openly displayed their feelings of superiority over blacks. Aaron grew up in Alabama and saw much the same thing then. Not surprisingly, things hadn’t improved a whole lot seven years later as Aaron approached the hallowed number of 714 homers, owned by a slugger beloved for his feats on the field and forgiven for his transgressions off of it. Aaron had no such forgiveness for any transgression, not that he needed it. He was quietly the best player in the game for two decades, or second-best depending on where you put him compared to Willie Mays. Had it not been for his service in the Korean War, Mays likely would have broken the record in 1972. Mays would have likely come close, but would not have exceeded Aaron’s marks of 6856 total bases and 2297 runs batted-in.

Regardless of who was 1 and 1A during that time, Mays’ chance at the record was gone. And it was up to Aaron. He hit 40 homers in 1973 during which time the letters and threats began pouring in, menacing and vile. The “authors” attempted to use fear to stop a black man from proving our skin color is not what separates us. The letters affected him certainly as he feared for his safety and that of his family and his teammates, but they also drove him to succeed to not only break the record, but to take a lot of the air out of the argument that blacks didn’t deserve equality.

Dusty Baker was a teammate at the time and remembers when Aaron would get a particularly hateful piece of mail.

“He’d drop it and go into the trainer’s room. One said, ‘Get out of here [slur].’ Another one saying somebody in a red jacket’s going to shoot him. Me and [teammate] Ralph Garr were like, ‘We’ll be with you.’ We were looking up in the stands, more scared that something would happen than Hank was. Hank just went ahead with his life,’ Baker told Newsday.

And, on April 8, 1974 he cracked an Al Dowling pitch over the left field fence in Atlanta. Aaron’s bodyguard would later recount how he had to decide whether the two college kids running the bases with Aaron were there to celebrate or were there to do him harm. Fortunately for Aaron, the bodyguard and them, they were there –foolishly– to congratulate him. Aaron would later say he was unsure at first why they were there, but he was frightened. What a way to celebrate a monumental achievement…

After baseball, Aaron cashed in somewhat, but not because corporate America opened up the bank to write him checks to endorse products. Consider this: he received one endorsement after breaking the record. One! Magnavox televisions, which now makes ROKU, asked him to be the face of their product. (They’re still in business. I think I’ll buy stock just to say thank you for doing the right thing.) With one endorsement, Aaron figured out pretty quickly he’d have to turn his career earnings into something else on his own. So he did. He bought chicken and donut franchises, made enough and saved enough to be comfortable and then, started giving some of it away. He started the 755 Foundation, which provides grants to children in cities across the country. It’s so under the radar that a Google search brings up another foundation with a different combination of numbers.

Speaking of numbers, Aaron would tack on another 40 dingers before he retired. Many baseball fans wish he’d hit another dozen –if not two– to protect the record from the onslaught of cheaters that would begin to mar the game 30 years later. It would be 43 years before his name would once again be second in the record book in the home run category. Toward the end of the steroid era, Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. He then hit ten more. It capped a career of petulant behavior, entitlism, egomaniacism, poor sportsmanship and clubhouse toxicity. While Aaron was loved and respected by teammates and opponents, Bonds was a pariah outside of San Francisco. Sure, Giants fans loved him blindly and many still do. Sadly, few recognize that even Giants management could stomach him only long enough to break the record as the team raked in as much cash in ticket and merchandise sales as they could before they cut him loose. In the year he “set” the record, Bonds led the major leagues in on-base percentage and walks, hit .276 and knocked 28 home runs out of the park. But after Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were drummed out of the game, and under indictment for obstruction of justice, Bonds might as well have been made of plutonium instead of “flaxseed oil.” No one would sign him after his contract expired.

On the day Bonds hit 756, he was greeted neither by Aaron, nor the game’s commissioner. It was a silent protest that later became more vocal as both Aaron and Bud Selig Stated publicly that they did not believe Bonds was deserving of the mantle “home run king.“ There were subsequent convictions –of Bonds (reversed later on a technicality), Balco founder Victor Conte, and Bonds’ best friend Greg Anderson who went to prison for selling steroids and money laundering and also was cited with contempt of court for refusing to testify against Bonds. These court actions give us no reason to think that anyone besides the Hammer should be at the top of the list. Selig and Aaron have been close for years and Selig was the one who introduced the Hank Aaron Award in 1997 though stands by his position that no asterisk should go next to Bonds name. This is where he and Aaron have been at odds. Regardless of his feelings though, Aaron still did the classy thing and sent a videotaped message to be played when Bonds hit 756. He didn’t have to. But he did.

But today isn’t about Bonds. Sadly, his taking of a record that doesn’t belong to him requires mentioning. But let’s forget him. Let’s focus instead on a great man. A brave man. A man of principle. A man of honor and integrity and class. A man whose suffering and deeds led to change that have ensured today’s ballplayers do not have to face that level of vitriol. They have Hank Aaron to thank for some of that.

It was a long time before Aaron could truly enjoy the record and what it meant to America. More than four decades ago, millions of children who might otherwise have been sucked into the abyss of race-baiting and hatred based on skin color were saved from that by seeing a very nice man break a very big record. And because of him we learned at a very young age that the character of a man is the only thing by which he should be judged.

Here are but a few.

Chipper Jones:

“I can’t imagine what Hank Aaron went through in his lifetime. He had every right to be angry or militant…..but never was! He spread his grace on everything and every one he came in contact with. Epitome of class and integrity. RIP Henry Aaron

Ozzie Smith:

“A true gentleman. A complete player. A friend. An American hero. I will miss him very much.

Celtics legend Bill Russell:

“@HenryLouisAaron was so much better than his reputation! His contributions were much more than just baseball.

Claire Smith:

He was a hero, a great and good man. These losses … so, so painful … The holes in the universe are diminishing us all. My thoughts on Hank Aaron and the eternal connection to Black baseball — @theundefeated

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.