From the time I was old enough to hold a bat, my heroes were always baseball players, and Hank Aaron was the first. I was only four years old in April of 1974 when he hit his historic home run to pass Babe Ruth, so if that moment was spoken of in my home, I don’t remember it, but it wasn’t long before my mother put a slim paperback book in my hands, The Home Run Kings: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. It was the first of many books I’d read about Aaron, and it would deepen my love of the game while kindling a love of reading, two passions that have never left me.
When I saw the news of Aaron’s passing this morning at the age of eighty-six, I thought about that first book and what Aaron has meant to me.
It begins, obviously, with his name. When I was a boy, there were only two people I knew who shared my first name. My father, who stood in a frame alongside my mother in a picture from their wedding day, and Hank Aaron. That was it.
One biography led to another, and soon the stories and statistics began to fill my head as if they were my own memories. I learned that he had been born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, and had taught himself how to play, the same as I had. (I even took more than a few swings cross-handed, with my left hand above my right the way he had before someone set him straight.) I worried for him when I read about his leaving home at the age of 18 with nothing but two dollars and two sandwiches for the train ride to Indianapolis where he’d play in the Negro Leagues for a time with the Indianapolis Clowns.
Before long he was in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Braves, and he quickly developed into one of the best players in baseball. Aaron’s game matched his personality. He was quiet off the field, and quietly great between the lines. We know him now solely as a home run hitter, but he was brilliant in all phases of the game. If steadiness can be dazzling, that was Aaron. He built his mountain of home runs with workman-like consistency, never once hitting as many as fifty home runs in a single season but only twice falling short of thirty from 1957 to 1973. He kept his head down, both figuratively and literally, as he hit all those long balls. Aaron once said that he had never seen a single one of his 755 home runs land, choosing instead to put his head down and circle the bases. That story may or may not be true, but it fits the man and player he was.
Aaron’s greatest accomplishment, his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1973 and ‘74, was one of the darkest times of his life. Ruth was more than just a baseball player, he was a myth, and there were those in the American South (the Braves had relocated to Atlanta in 1966) who couldn’t stomach the idea of a Black man eclipsing a white icon. The hate mail was horrific, and the death threats were frequent. Just six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, those death threats were taken seriously. When you watch the clip of Aaron’s historic 715th home run and you see the crowd of fans spilling out of the stands and onto the field, it’s easy to see it as just a celebration; Aaron later admitted that he feared for his life in what should have been the crowning moment of his career.
His stature in the game is secure. He is one of the five greatest hitters ever to play in the major leagues (Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Bonds are the others, end of discussion), but his legacy was ironically solidified when Barry Bonds pushed past him with his 756th home run in 2007. Everyone knew what was going on, and everyone knew that Bonds’s record was tainted, but after Bonds circled the bases that night, there was Aaron on the video scoreboard, praising the new home run king for his “skill, longevity, and determination.” And there was more: “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase down their dreams.”
I hit only one home run in a baseball career that ended at age fourteen, but Aaron still inspired me to chase down my dreams. I never saw him play a single game, but he was still my hero.
My dad and I met him at a baseball card show when I was fifteen. He was probably the same age then as I am today, and he sat at a table before a long line of memorabilia hounds. Sometimes the signers at these events would chat a bit with their fans, but Aaron was keeping his head down as usual, signing one item after another, baseballs, bats, and photos. No conversation.
But when my turn came and I set down a glossy 8×10 for him to sign, my dad couldn’t help himself.
“His name is Hank,” he said. “Just like you.”
My hero paused, then looked up at me with a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”
Hank, this is just beautiful. Aaron was one of the very best of the Greats.
Thanks, Hank. Both of you.
Oh shoot. I put an emoji in -- it showed in the 'preview' but doesn't appear.
I'm old enough to remember 1974. My friends and I were stunned when we heard that some people hated Hank Aaron -- I guess it was one of my first lessons that a lot of America was not like New York.
Remember the candy bar endorsement? "Oh, Henry Aaron does it again!"
I cried listening to people talk about him on the radio; he was one of those guys you thought would be around for a hundred years because what would life be without a guy like him? He was a treasure on and off the field, and someone who I came to idolize in my baseball youth, then later as a grown man someone I cherished for his perseverance and humanity.
My connection with Henry Aaron was not direct, but in my Little League days people compared me to him because of how I batted cross-handed (my brother is left-handed and taught me to grip the bat that way, though I was predominantly right-handed). Not that I recommend it; I was warned constantly that I would break my wrists, but to me it felt natural, and besides I swung faster and made far more contact than I would the conventional way.
During my first season in LL, amid the warnings from just about everyone, my coach pulled me aside and said, "yunnow, Hank Aaron batted cross-handed too." Knowing who he actually was, I took this to heart and kept doing what I was doing through the end of the season, when my team came in second place.
At the LL awards dinner after the season, where all the teams and their families gathered for the trophy ceremonies in which my team received individual 2nd-place trophies, my coach would introduce each of my teammates, read their stats and give them a trophy and a photo-op. When it was my turn, my coach introduced me by starting off with "Hank Aaron..." All eyes turned to me; they all obviously knew who he was talking about. Eventually he read my stats: 23 HR/.760 BA, etc... an audible gasp swept the room and even I was floored since I had no idea; I was just a kid playing ball and having fun just like I always did playing stick-ball with all the neighborhood kids.
And cross-handed at that, just like my new-found hero.
Wow, a trade with the Red Sox.
No new HoFers.
Now, why was that? What's special about this year?
At least Curt Schilling didn't get voted in, that was my prayer this year.
Schilling's numbers are roughly the same as Moose, but includes the 2 W.S. I really don't like the guy due to his horrible views, but he would be in if he mostly kept his mouth shut.
I still haven't gotten over the pain Schilling caused me as a Yankee fan, but all his other craziness makes me glad that he'll never be voted in by the writers. (He has actually asked to be taken off the ballot next year, the equivalent of taking his ball and going home.)
Here's an article outlining some of his more outlandish comments.
It doesn't mention something else, a comment supporting the sentiment that journalists should be lynched. At this point I'm glad that he's doing his level best to validate all of the previously irrational animosity I've felt towards him.
It was great to have you, and we wish you the best with your old Golden Eagles.
Pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks Schilling is a dickhead.
Dustin Pedroia retired today. I wanted to see him strike out every time he was at bat but that’s just because I had great respect for that little squirt.
 Vaya con, My Little Pony. I never rooted for you because of the laundry, but no question you were a gamer. For attitude, I'd take you over a six-pack of Nomaaaahhs.