Remembering Hank Aaron
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Hank Aaron, one of the greatest baseball players of all time and longtime home run king, passed away last week. He was 86 years old.
Aaron spent 23 seasons in Major League Baseball and was an All Star for 21 of those years. He surpassed Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs in 1974 and ended his career with 755, a record that stood for 33 years until Barry Bonds overtook Aaron. Aaron stands as the all-time RBI and total bases leader, records that don’t seem to be in jeopardy in the near future, and has played the third most games of any player, with 3,298 ball games logged.
Even more incredible, arguably, is that he was more than just a power hitter. Take away all 755 of his home runs, and he still tops 3,000 hits. With them, Aaron has the third most hits in MLB history with his 3,771, trailing only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. He was also quick in both the outfield and on the basepaths. Aaron won three Gold Glove awards in his career, and he was always a threat to steal a base, snagging 15 or more bases for nine consecutive seasons in his prime. He was a true five-tool player and indisputably one of the best to ever do it.
Aaron’s true greatness goes well beyond his performance on the diamond, though. As a Black man growing up during the peak of the Jim Crow era, he experienced extreme racism, including an unwillingness of people to accept him as a baseball player, despite his obvious talent. This treatment didn’t improve as he joined the minor leagues, where he played in Jacksonville, Florida. Aaron and his Black teammates slept at different hotels from the white members of the team, and they were heckled by fans and called slurs by white crowd members.
When Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves in the big leagues, it was more of the same. He had to shower after all his teammates, and he was berated by fans, all while he was bashing home runs day in and day out. At one point, Aaron was even the most mailed-to person in the country—some fan mail, but also a lot of hate mail, filled with death threats directed at him and his family. While he endured all this hate, he kept it inside, not wanting to share it with his teammates or friends.
As Aaron’s career continued, the racism never stopped. And as he climbed the home run ladder, he garnered even more hatred. Aaron needed to hire private security to protect him and his family, and even needed to sleep alone at the ballpark sometimes to avoid having to go home, where he could be in danger.
Despite being the best player in the league and living the dream, Aaron had to suffer through his seasons. While you would never have seen it from looking at him, he and other Black players dealt with unimaginable treatment. “We brought excitement, speed. We paid our dues, man. No one knows what we had to go through—get off the bus, go get dressed somewhere else, go eat on the other side of town, get back in half an hour ready to play,” Aaron told Sports Illustrated in 1992. “What has baseball done for us? How many of those guys are around the game today? The white man allowed us a few crumbs. ‘You can sit right here in the front of the bus so long as you're pulling in money. After that, it's back to the back of the bus.’”
As Aaron approached fateful home run number 715, anticipation grew high. He drilled number 714 on April 4, 1974, and was presented with a trophy on the field by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. A few days later, the Braves returned to Atlanta (where they now play), and Aaron walked up to the plate in the fourth inning. On the second pitch, Aaron cranked a ball over the left field seats, making him the all-time homerun leader. As legendary announcer Vin Scully put it, “What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
Yet, who wasn’t there to see it? Commissioner Kuhn, who had instead chosen to attend a meeting with a Cleveland Indians Booster organization. It was a clear snub to Aaron from the man in charge and also a symbol that no matter how far Aaron had come, he still hadn’t earned the respect of all fans and baseball executives.
Aaron finished his career atop the charts in almost every important statistical category, cementing himself as one of the all-time greats in baseball history, if not the greatest to ever live. However, Aaron’s legacy goes beyond that. He is a pioneer of the sport, who helped pave the way for players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Bonds. He battled through racism and hate that would be enough to deter most people, and yet he did it as he became one of the greatest MLB players ever. President Joe Biden put it best: “With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people.” May he rest in peace among the rest of baseball’s greats.