Henry Aaron is gone, passing away in his sleep in the wee hours of Friday morning, peacefully leaving this roiling world only two weeks before his 87th birthday. He can rest now. And we can celebrate his extraordinary life.
We can measure Henry Aaron’s greatness through baseball statistics. We can measure him for his greatness as a man. But we cannot fully comprehend his value unless we combine those virtues.
How did he do it? How did he put up such incredible numbers as an all-time great when he had to put up with death threats, racial slurs, discrimination, and raw hatred?
The strength of Aaron’s character endured and prevailed for more than a quarter century of professional baseball. The strength of his heart, and his mind, gave him the power to conquer Jim Crow, and block out the emotional pain of poison letters, and mute the heckling of snarling white mobs outraged by the mere thought of a Black man displacing Babe Ruth as baseball’s home-run king.
The esteemed baseball writer Joe Posnanski wrote a tribute to Aaron last year in a series of profiles on The Top 100 baseball players of all-time. In the piece at The Athletic, Posnanski offered a disturbing but enlightening sampling of letters received by Aaron as the Atlanta Braves’ outfielder moved closer to Ruth’s cherished record of 714 homers.
Everybody loved Babe Ruth. You will be the most hated man in the country if you break his career home run record.
You are doing more to hurt baseball than any other that ever played the game. You may break the record and you may replace Babe Ruth in the hearts of the liberal sportswriters, the liberal newspapers, TV and radio … but you will never replace the Babe in the hearts of clear-thinking members of our Society.
Dear Black Boy,
Listen Black Boy, We don’t want no n—— Babe Ruth.
Dear Super Spook,
First of all, I don’t care for the color of s—. You are pretty damn repugnant trying to break the Babe’s record.
Dear Mr. N—–,
I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids that a n—– did it?
Dear Henry Aaron,
How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?
Not that this needs to be said, because I trust that all non-racists understand. But the intensifying pressure of topping Ruth’s vaunted home-run mark would have been excruciating and smothering for Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Harmon Killbrew or any white ballplayer. But the challenge wouldn’t have included a blistering and despicable attack of racial epitaphs, assassination threats, or the vow to harm their families as an act of vengeance.
And in their days in minor-league baseball, they did not have to carry the imposing burden of being a Black person in America while riding busses, checking into hotels, or trying to eat a simple meal at a restaurant. There was no threat of rejection or recrimination. For young white players in the minors — or even the majors in the 1950s and early ‘60s — the struggles were limited to the discomfort of whiffing at nasty curve balls. But even when the hotels and restaurants finally opened to Black baseball players, the sin of racism was still in place … just as it is now.
“The whites used to yell from the stands and call us alligator bait,” said Felix Mantilla, who roomed with Aaron in the minors. Manilla offered the disturbing memory in an interview with Howard Bryant, who wrote a book on Aaron.
Henry Aaron never had a clear, clean path to preeminence. But he suffered the arrows of racial animus with remarkable grace and dignity. Not that he wasn’t in agony. But he refused to show it. And he defied the racism by having the nerve, the courage, to triumph over the forces that wanted to break him down.
“I didn’t expect the fans to give me a standing ovation every time I stepped on the field, but I thought a few of them might come over to my side as I approached Ruth,” Aaron said in his memoir. “At the very least, I felt I had earned the right not be verbally abused and racially ravaged in my home ballpark.”
When Aaron broke Ruth’s record by driving No. 715 into the Braves’ bullpen in left field on April 8, 1974 at Fulton County Stadium, the team had off-duty Atlanta police officers working incognito to protect Aaron. He tried to convince his beloved mother to stay away from the ballpark that night; Aaron feared for her safety. But she insisted on attending.
MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn — a disgrace of a human being — didn’t bother to show up and be in position to observe one of the most profound moments in baseball history. The snub was surprising and, to say the least, disappointing. But, in the context of Aaron’s existence, no one should have been shocked by Kuhn’s ignorance.
This was just part of Aaron’s life at the time.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” he said, many years after retiring as a player. “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 ballparks. 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.”
Aaron persisted through it all. When he retired at the end of the 1976 season at age 43, this is where he stood in baseball’s historical ledger of excellence:
- 1st in career homers, runs batted in, hits, extra-base hits and total bases. And tied for first in runs scored. (He’s still first all-time in RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.)
- 2nd in doubles, 3rd in most times reaching base, 3rd in runs created, third in runs produced, 4th in WAR, 10th in stolen bases.
- In 23 MLB seasons Aaron was an All-Star 25 times. (MLB played two All-Star games per season in the early 1960s. He earned three Gold Gloves; keep in mind that the award didn’t originate until 1958. He won an MVP award and probably deserved more; Aaron finished in the top three of voting six other times and also had a fifth-place finish.
- In individual seasons Aaron won two batting titles, four home-run crowns and five RBI titles, He cranked 755 homers despite never hitting more than 47 in a season. He led the league in total bases nine times, runs scored three times, and was tops in stolen bases two times.
- If you subtract Aaron’s 755 homers, he still would have finished his career with 3,016 hits. As is, he was a career .305 hitter with a .374 OBP and .555 slugging percentage.
- Aaron was the first MLB hitter to attain the combination of 3,000 career hits and 500 homers. He remains the only player in MLB history to hit 20 home runs in 20 different seasons.
- Tom Verducci had this outstanding note: if you add up the distance covered in Aaron’s career total of 6,856 total bases and converted them to miles — Aaron would be 12 miles ahead of the No. 2 player on the list, Stan Musial.
- And two notes from Posnanski: Ruth could have walloped 250 more home runs and not have as many total bases as Aaron. Pete Rose could have ripped another 1,100 singles in his career and not had as many total bases as Aaron.
If it’s possible for any player with 3,771 hits, 755 homers, 2,297 RBIs and a roomful of awards to be underrated, Henry Aaron was underrated. To many, two epic numbers stand out and are etched into memories: 715, and 755. The two iconic emblems overshadow most other aspects of Aaron’s luminous career.
Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s career home-run record, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that Aaron is viewed as the all-time home-run monarch. Aaron’s career was free of steroids taint. But we’re not here to debate ‘roids and the career worthiness of those who used them.
Today we can only salute Henry Aaron for all that he achieved while rising above prejudice and baseball colonialism.
“I can’t imagine what Hank Aaron went through in his lifetime,” tweeted Chipper Jones, Aaron’s friend and fellow Baseball Hall of Famer. “He had every right to be angry or militant, but never was! He spread his grace on everything and every one he came in contact with. Epitome of class and integrity.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Aaron.
Rest in triumph.
To the readers — as always thanks for reading …
Have a wonderful weekend.
And stay safe.
Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk radio show on 590-AM, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m, and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Listen online and download the show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your app store.