The life and legacy of Hank Aaron
Outspoken, steadfast, and undeniably talented, Henry “Hank” Aaron is arguably the greatest baseball player to ever live. The first ballot Hall of Famer passed away last Friday leaving an enduring legacy of athletic achievement, humility, and civil rights activism. Aaron’s passing came just weeks before his February 5th birthday. He would have turned 87.
Hammerin’ Hank’s impact on the game of baseball and, by extension, civil rights, cannot be overstated. The story of how a kid from rural Alabama rose out of poverty and through the often hostile ranks of a professional sport populated by openly racist athletes, fans, and management is nothing short of amazing.
A Mobile native and longtime resident of the city’s Toumlinville neighborhood, Aaron was unable to afford proper baseball equipment and spent his boyhood practicing by hitting bottle caps with sticks or whatever else was available. Catching was practiced by throwing or rolling a ball over the roof of his home and grabbing it before it hit the ground on the other side. But even then, the child’s play was interrupted by the ever present threat of racist violence — Aaron often recalled the time when his catching drill was cut short by his mother screaming for him to come inside and hide under the bed. Minutes later the Ku Klux Klan rode through Toumlinville, terrorizing residents by setting fires. Even then, Aaron was undeterred.
By the time he was 15, Henry was skilled enough to secure a major league tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not make the squad, however, he did join the Pritchard Athletics, a local Negro League team, earning $2 per game, as a junior in high school. His performance for the Athletics led to a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns, another Negro League team, and within three months of signing with the Clowns, Aaron was given his first major league contract. Despite his meteoric rise and undeniable talent, the teenage phenom was victimized by racist experiences that would unfortunately continue throughout his career. He recalled a particularly striking moment when the Clowns were dining in Washington D.C.
“We had breakfast while we were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we finished eating. What a horrible sound. Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they'd have washed them,” Aaron recounted.
With his entrance into the major leagues, the rookie brought both the wisdom and skill of a much older veteran to the game. He had an immediate impact for the Milwaukee Braves with spectators quickly realizing that they were witnessing the birth of a star.
Aaron was the consummate hitter but the right-fielder possessed such a well-rounded set of baseball abilities that he also earned 3 Golden Glove awards, given for outstanding fielding performance. Additionally, Aaron holds MLB records for the most career runs batted in (RBIs) (2,297) and he is a top five record holder for both career hits (3,771) and runs (2,174) as well.
Despite his high all-time rankings across several major league stat categories, Aaron’s most well known feat on the baseball diamond is his destruction of Babe Ruth’s revered home run record. The lead-up and aftermath of the march toward Ruth’s 714 home runs marked a grand public spectacle and private nightmare for Henry Aaron, both characterized by ugly, naked racism. After finishing the 1973 season with 713 home runs, Aaron worried that he might not live to beat the record the following year — he was inunadated with unrelenting assassination threats and hate mail.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away,” recalled Aaron, speaking of the environment surrounding the chase of the home run crown.
Inevitably, Aaron smashed the record and finished his 23-season, major league career with 755 home runs. It took 33 years for another player to best his home run figures. Still, he did not think of his home run record as his greatest achievement. That distinction would go to his record of very few strikeouts and very many runs batted in. In fact, the slugger never struck out 100 times in a single season. Ruth, by contrast, was a five-time league leader in strikeouts.
Aaron’s post-playing career was likewise marked by continued success and a continuing commitment to speaking against racial inequity. He held executive roles in the Atlanta Braves’ front office, where he was a vocal advocate for and mentor to Black players. The Major League Baseball award for best overall offensive performance carries his name. Aaron was also awarded Presidential Medals by Presidents Clinton and Bush, respectively. President Barack Obama recently weighed in on Aaron’s legacy in a statement honoring the legend’s life, calling him “one of the 20th century’s most dignified and enduring athletes.”
Hammerin’ Hank also had something to say about President Obama as well as the impact of race on politics and American life during an interview with USA Today sports columnist Bob Nightingale. “Sure, this country has a black president, but...President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
As we remember the 25-time All-Star, his sports contributions, his voice for justice, and his advocacy work, let us also remember his motto.
“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.”
Thanks for the encouragement, Hammerin’ Hank. We will keep swinging for sure.