Hank Aaron was bigger than baseball. For someone I never had the pleasure of watching play live, I am fortunate to have learned his story and substantial impact on all generations of the baseball community. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron idolized Jackie Robinson – the Brooklyn Dodgers first basemen who broke the MLB color barrier in 1947 (and obviously achieved so much more). Robinson came to Mobile the following summer, in 1948, to speak out against segregation and racial injustice. He ultimately helped reveal the life of baseball and the life of activism to a young Hank Aaron, who at the time wanted nothing more than to be just like Jackie. Growing up in an underprivileged household, Aaron lived with his seven siblings and was unable to afford luxury items, such as baseball equipment. As a child, he was forced to use sticks and bottle caps as a substitute for a bat and baseball, a perfect testament of his love for the game. Upon all the stories and interviews involving Hank that I have read or watched throughout my life, he came off as honest, hardworking, and humble to everyone around him. That was the case with most players of that era – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks – they were not just exceptional at their craft, but they did it during a time where some felt they didn’t belong. On top of hateful mail towards himself, his family, and his friends, Aaron received death threats for being near (and then ultimately surpassing) Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714. I have trouble conceptualizing the difficulty of trying to step into a batter’s box every day focusing on hitting a baseball, when he and other black players were still having to deal with issues away from the game.
“I got millions and millions of pieces of mail from people that were resentful simply because of the fact of who I was and they were just not ready for a black man to break that record.”
In another interview, Aaron stated that “all of these things have put a bad taste in [his] mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of [his] heart away.” For someone who was so essential for the sport of baseball – bringing the same light to young black children around the world that Jackie gave to him as a child – Aaron deserved better than how he was treated.
It’s true. At the end of the day, baseball really is just a game. I get it. But while the events that transpire between the foul lines might be of little importance to some, for others like Aaron it meant much more. His childhood may not have been ideal, but as with most athletes and demanding backgrounds, baseball was his escape. His resiliency and determination defined the type of person he was, and the numbers prove it. Despite winning both the MVP and World Series only once, Aaron was an all star in 21 straight seasons and has a legitimate case for one of the greatest careers in all of sports. The hall of famer is second all time in home runs (755), most in total bases (6,856), RBIs (2,297), and extra base-hits (1,477), and had 10 seasons of 30+ HR with fewer than 65 Ks. Aaron totaled 3,771 hits in his career – which makes him the only player with 500+ HRs who would have reached 3,000 hits without tallying the homers. So, to put it bluntly, he was good at what he did.
As I stated earlier, however, Hank Aaron’s legacy goes way beyond baseball. Aaron was a civil rights advocate for those who didn’t have the platform to fight against racism and discrimination, both during his playing career and after. He cared considerably for those around him and never was one to shy away from voicing his opinion. Baseball has now lost quite a few legends this past year – Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Tommy Lasorda, and now Hank Aaron. This one significantly hurts the baseball community, and fans of all ages mourn the loss and cherish the life of the true home run king, Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron.
“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” – Hank Aaron