In baseball, greatness is quantifiable. In any quantifiable way, the baseball career of Henry “Hank” Aaron was exceptional. But baseball stats can’t tell the whole story. Hank Aaron passed away on Friday at the age of 86, and there is so much to unpack in the life of this great man. Boiling down Hank Aaron’s life to 755 home runs is not fair the the man himself.
I remember as a kid in the late 1990s watching Ken Burns’ Baseball with my dad, and getting to the part about Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs. Aaron getting death threats felt like something from ancient history to me in the bubble where I grew up. The best hitter on the Red Sox was Mo Vaughn and the team’s hitting coach was Jim Rice, a franchise legend and one of my dad’s favorite players. Aaron cementing his place in the baseball record book a quarter century after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers was framed as the culmination of a struggle for equality within the National Pastime. The narration in the Ken Burns doc describes Aaron as the last Negro Leaguer in Major League Baseball at the time of his glorious 715th home run in Atlanta (though Minnie Minoso did make a comeback with the White Sox after that), but I had no idea as a white kid in suburban Massachusetts how ongoing that struggle was.
From humble beginnings in Jim Crow Mobile, Alabama, Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in 1952 (this was after the 1920-1948 period that was formally acknowledged as a Major League in late 2020 so his MLB home run total of 755 did not change) before signing with the Boston Braves. The Braves would move to Milwaukee before his Major League debut (but still several years before the team that stayed in Boston would be integrated by Pumpsie Green), won a World Series title for Milwaukee in 1957, and made a name for himself as a consistent hitter for average and power. While Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were flashy superstars playing in New York, Aaron had 15 seasons of 30+ home runs, but never hit 50 in a season.
Joe DiMaggio insisted on being introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer” at events in is post-playing career, but this chart posted by Reddit user wolfhound27 illustrates just how singularly great Hank Aaron was (while DiMaggio was a great player, and he did miss three seasons for military service, he did not reach 3000 hits or even 400 home runs, if you’re looking for his name and can’t find it).
Hank Aaron was not fully embraced by White America until another black man, Barry Bonds, came steadily and methodically towards his record, with a prickly personality and an altered physique designed for hitting balls over the fence. Now, Henry Aaron didn’t seem so dangerous. Now, he was a dignified legend of the game. No need to atone for the thousands of letters of hate for the audacity to erase The Babe, baseball’s Great White Hope, who hit 714 home runs without ever having to step into the batter’s box against Satchel Paige, John Donaldson, or Rube Foster.
Bob Ryan wasn’t the only one to make Aaron’s death about Barry Bonds, but he stuck out to me because I usually respect his sports opinions and knowledge of baseball and basketball history, but his tweet did not sit well with me.
I too, am a baseball fan who has to grapple with the record-breaking implications of the Steroid Era, but I can’t take too seriously the mostly white, mostly male sports media demanding an asterisk for Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa when there was never an asterisk for Babe Ruth’s sacred, segregated records. The players are being kept out of the baseball Hall of Fame while former commissioner Bud Selig has been welcomed with open arms. Henry Aaron was a friend of Selig’s and recognized and congratulated Bonds on his achievement.
Had Aaron been born 25 years earlier, his baseball career would have been all but finished by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Had he been born 25 years later, the twilight of his career would have come in the heart of the Steroid Era. We are all to be judged by the times in which we lived, but that doesn’t seem to apply to self-important baseball writers grasping for a convenient Tweet-length take.
In the last 12 months, in addition to being largely stuck at home to contemplate the future of sports, concerts, democracy, and every aspect of daily life we have lost a lot of baseball’s all time greats. There was Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, and Phil Niekro, as well as Tommy Lasorda, Don Sutton, and Hank Aaron just since the start of 2021. While I got to baseball after they had all played or managed their last games, they were people I felt like I knew as a fan and student of the game.
Hank Aaron’s death hit me the hardest. His 715th home run with Vin Scully on the call is the non-Red Sox related baseball highlight I have watched the most on YouTube, and between the death of John Lewis, the presidential election and the Senate runoffs, I had Georgia on my mind a lot these last few months.
This year for Christmas, my gift giving theme was supporting businesses that were hurt by the pandemic and/or aren’t owned by Facebook/Amazon/Google, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City became a source for some of the harder people to shop for on my list. I have wanted to vithe museum for a while, and I am not sure when that will happen, but I bought for myself a Hank Aaron Indianapolis Clowns bobblehead from the museum’s online gift shop. He will be a fixture of my livingroom decor for a long time.
Hank Aaron saw America at it’s very worst, and persevered when the brunt of that anger and hate was being directed at him. Because of the color of his skin he was not able to enjoy the greatest achievement a baseball player has ever reached, and would not play along when those wanted to prop him up to spite the next holder of that sacred record. For all the progress we have made in the last 86 years–including Aaron himself being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, and the election of Barack Obama a few years later–voting rights are up for debate, and a simple statement like “black lives matter” is a deeply polarizing partisan issue. One of the more chilling videos I saw as tributes to Hank Aaron rolled in on social media was an interview with Conan O’Brien early on in his Late Night run, where Hank wasn’t sure his treatment would be any different had his milestone pursuit happened twenty years later. Twenty-five years after that interview, I have no reason to doubt him.
Henry Aaron was a hero. He was better than we were, and we are still struggling to learn the right lessons from his life. Hank Aaron exceeded all that was expected of him, on and off the field. We all need to do better.