You may have noticed that several of your friends have posted some remembrances or noted with sadness the passing of baseball great Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron. Since social media is the water cooler of our times and we are separated by pandemic, a number of people may wonder: Why Aaron? He was a legend within the game of baseball, no doubt, but his life was significant beyond the game and those who followed him held him in the highest esteem.
Aaron was someone who faced a number of significant challenges, and through him, we saw the best and worst of American society. Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934, he grew up amid the segregated South, amongst former slaves and hearing stories of that era. Poverty and racial inequality were significant impediments to any of Aaron’s dreams – let alone rewriting the baseball record book.
While his journey to the majors started in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1953, Aaron was promoted to Jacksonville of the South Carolina League. He and his teammates – Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla – were among the first players of color in the entire league. Not only did they have to stay in separate accommodations than the team, as Aaron recalled in his biography, I Had A Hammer, but this trio was also subjected to racial taunts from the stands and worse. It is important to point out that this is a full six years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby followed breaking the line in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.
In 1998, before the All-Star Game in Denver, I was at a private pre-game reception. Aaron was there and sat down at our table. After my team owner warmed him up talking about bird hunting, I got to ask him a few questions about his book. We talked mostly about his time in the minor leagues and then the radical contrast to the welcome he received when he got called up to the big club in Milwaukee. Still, the MLB was a long way from being integrated.
This part of the game’s history is often glossed over. From 1947 until 1959, the integration of baseball was done slowly. It wasn’t until Pumpsie Green played his first game with the Boston Red Sox that every team has at least one player of color on their squad. African American coaches wouldn’t start to appear until the 1960s, and the first manager, Frank Robinson, didn’t fill out a scorecard until 1976. Aaron’s career as a player spanned all of this time.
Twenty-one times, every season except his first and his last, “The Hammer” was an All-Star. And that’s about all the recognition he received as an active player. Despite leading the National League in runs three times, hits and batting average twice, homers and RBI four times, he won only one MVP award. The competition was stiff – he was pinned against Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and even fellow son of Mobile Willie McCovey. But Aaron did not receive his due.
By the time Aaron hit his 700th home run on July 21, 1973, America woke up to the realization that there may be a new home run king. According to The Washington Post obituary written by the esteemed Dave Sheinin, from that time until he broke Babe Ruth’s record, Aaron received more mail than anyone else in the United States who was not an elected official. Much of it was filled with hate.
He needed private security. Again, like his days in the minor leagues, he did not stay with his teammates. Unlike that time, the hotels he stayed in were not substandard. He was taken out of a separate entrance of the ballpark. Beyond the stress of the threats, the Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn added his own insult to injury. He made a petty issue of Aaron being in the line-up for the opening series in Cincinnati. Then, after Aaron tied the record there, Kuhn was not at the game in Atlanta when he broke the home run record. All in all, the final home runs to break Ruth’s mark were not an enjoyable experience.
Throughout the turbulent 1960s and into the 70s, Aaron persevered. While lamenting to Martin Luther King Jr. he wanted to do more, MLK apparently told him to “just keep swinging the bat.” He did get more involved in politics and the fight for civil rights. A Democrat, Aaron received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In these divided times, it is significant that he was recognized regardless by chief executives from both sides of the aisle.
Forget that he hit 755 home runs, remains the all-time leader in RBI, is one of only seven players to score more than 2000 runs, and has 3771 hits. Aaron didn’t have it made from the start. Despite the obstacles, he persevered and battled. And he did not rest on his baseball laurels. He was active in making Atlanta and the United States better places to live. While not loud in voice, his actions spoke volumes. This is why Hank Aaron matters.