Tributes to Hank Aaron

The social media posts and memories of “Hammerin Hank” continue to pour in.
Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Brewers played the Sacramento Solons in an exhibition in 1975. KCRA photographer Mike Domalaog found file footage of the event and posted it on Facebook.

Hank Aaron was one of the best, if not the best baseball players every. His death Friday at the age of 86 reminds us that our heroes don’t live forever. The outpouring of emotion and tributes has been something that has helped bring many people in the country together, much like he did 47 years ago on a cool night in Atlanta.

“Class guy, great player,” says Ron Hyde. Hyde was a longtime sports anchor who met the home run king while Hyde was still dreaming of making it big as a ballplayer.

“Back in the day, I had an hour and a half flight from Cleveland to Atlanta going back to school at Georgia Tech. Before the flight departed, the gate agent engaged me in conversation and I told her I was going back to college, I play baseball, blah blah blah,” Hyde recalls. “She took back my ticket and printed a new one, upgrading me to first class. Row 1 of the aircraft! There was one seat between me and a well-dressed gentleman. I knew instantly it was Hank Aaron!”

Not having honed his interview skills yet, it took some doing for Hyde to open his mouth. “For the first two-thirds of the flight I tried to work up the nerve to say something and couldn’t. He is famous and wants his space, or so I thought! I told myself if you don’t say something you’re going to leave this flight, walk away so devastated that you didn’t have the guts to speak to the home run king. In the final 30 minutes of the flight I worked up the courage.”

Did Hyde receive a steely stare, or a curt response? No. The home run king would have none of that. “We had a wonderful conversation about baseball and life,” Hyde says. “He was ever the gentleman. Even when I thought, I’ve said enough, leave him be, he asked more about me and my family. As we pulled into the gate in Atlanta, we stood up to grab our stuff and disembark. His last words to me were about baseball. He said, “Are you any good?” I said, “yes, but I know at best I’m the second best player on this plane.” He gave that magnanimous smile that he had and I had only seen from afar until that day.”

Longtime Spitter scribe Patrick “Smitty” Smith also encountered Aaron, while Aaron was on the job after his playing career was over. Smith’s encounter was certainly different as Aaron was as focused on his duties as a member of Braves management as he was on the pitch coming out of a pitcher’s hand as a player. By many accounts, it took Aaron several years to come to terms with his place in baseball history and the hatred that had been a part of his accomplishments. Much later, he gained more of a sense of joy, rather than relief, at what he had done.

“I was in high school when I and my pals John Collins, Tom Collins and Matt Steigerwald went to a Durham Bulls game at the rickety old Durham Athletic Park (long before the movie),” Smith recalls. “In those days, the Bulls were a Carolina League farm team for Atlanta. During a rain delay, we all noticed a dark-skinned man by himself, wearing a checkered blazer and a tie, smoking a cigarette and staring out into the rain. Nothing more. Just having a smoke and standing stock still, watching the storm soak the tarp-covered field. Hank Aaron was in Durham, checking out the low minor league team,” Because I was (and am) a total spazz, I approached the home run king to shake his hand and tell him how much I admired him. We were out of view of whatever crowd remained at a soon-to-be-rained-out minor league game. Hank was smoking and staring. I said something to him about the Bulls and he barely responded. He wasn’t impolite, but nor was he especially glad to encounter a chatty kid. I remember I felt a little put off, but thanked him and left him alone.”

The conversation led to a deeper one between Smitty and his friends. “John, Tom, Matt and I had a long discussion on the drive back to Raleigh about whether ballplayers and other celebrities owed their fans anything – in this case, a slightly more enthusiastic greeting, at least? Tom and I believed he did. Matt and John believed he didn’t. Over the years, I’ve come to agree with Matt and John. For one moment of Aaron’s life, John said, the guy needed some peace and quiet. Isn’t he entitled to that? I totally see John’s point now and respect the wisdom he had, even as a teenager.”

“(Regardless), I’ll always remember him as an American hero. In 1973 and 1974, as he closed in on Babe Ruth‘s career home run record, Aaron and his family were harassed and threatened by racists, warning him that he’d be assassinated if he hit his 715th career homer. He did hit it, of course, and dozens more before he retired. He was brave and quiet and dignified. In April of ’74, my dad let me stay up late and watch the Dodgers-Braves game. “Hank might break the record tonight,” he said. “This is history.” So we did watch and Hank did break the record. I don’t have to look it up: Al Downing threw Aaron a fastball over the middle of the plate. As soon as he put bat to ball, Aaron knew it was gone and so did everyone else. It sailed over that weird see-through wall at Fulton County Stadium and the matrix scoreboard displayed a giant “715.” Braves radio announcer Milo Hamilton shouted, “There’s a new home run king! And it’s Henry Aaron!” Fireworks boomed and Aaron rounded the bases, surely worried for his safety, especially when fans ran onto the field and tried to embrace him between second and third base. But he made it home. His wife and his parents were brought from the stands to celebrate the moment with him. I’ll never forget it… the joy and relief on Aaron’s face. Henry Aaron can rest knowing he made baseball and America better.”

Retired player Ron Gant weighed in on the death of his idol.

“It took me a full day to put into words how I’m feeling after the passing of my idol and mentor, Hank Aaron,” Gant said on Facebook. “Growing up, my biggest dream was to make it to the big leagues, so I could be like Hank. Not only did my dream come true, but at the age of 19, I got to meet him. He taught me so much about the game of baseball. I have no doubt if it weren’t for his guidance and direction, would I have ever been able to accomplish back to back 30/30 seasons. Thank you Hank. Rest in peace.”

Retired General Colin Powell also took to social media. “We have lost one of America’s greatest athletes, Hank Aaron who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974,” wrote Powell. “I was in Vietnam then, but the news reached me. Some white citizens hated him because they didn’t want black Aaron to beat the white Babe’s record. Bless Hank, he inspired so many of us but let us remember that this kind of racial hatred still exists. We have had many improvements since 1974. Let us remember that we have to keep working on the problem until the day comes when the color of your skin is not even noticed.”

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