I was five years old when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Even though I was young, I was old enough to recognize that his 715th career home run made history. At the time, I was not aware of the death threats and racism that he faced as he chased the home run record. Aaron had to have a police escort and sneak in out of ballparks as he closed in on the milestone. He had faced racism before, as a young child growing up in “Jim Crow” Georgia and while he played in the minor leagues. It is impossible not to recognize the poise he showed during the 1974 season. Aaron died last Friday at the age of 86. As a kid who grew up playing baseball, I’ve thought about him often these past couple of days.
He was inspired by the example of Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier. As a young man, Hank Aaron saw Robinson play in a 1948 spring training game. Aaron also saw Robinson as the great role model he was; and Aaron would emulate him during his career. Aaron started his career in the Negro League and then was drafted by the Braves, where he originally played in the minor leagues. His breakout as a major league player came in 1955, when he hit .314. In 1957, he was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. That year he hit an 11th inning home run to propel the Milwaukee Braves to their first pennant. Then shortly thereafter, he led his team to defeat the Yankees and win its first World Series.
Aaron’s career stats are mind blowing. As one New York Times article cataloged: he had 3,771 hits—only behind Ty Cobb and Pete Rose; 2,297 runs batted in—the highest of all time; 6,856 total bases—again the highest of all time; 2,174 career games in a career that spanned three decades!
The tributes that have come in from athletes and other leaders clearly honor a man who transcended his sport. Dusty Baker, a former teammate and manager of the Astros, said, “He was the greatest I was ever around.” Jimmy Carter called him a “personal hero.” Carter further noted, “A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.” George W. Bush, who awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said, “Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him.”
When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Aaron said of his home run chase, “I never wanted them (the fans) to forget Babe Ruth. I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”
A private memorial will be held this Tuesday and a private funeral on Wednesday. The MLB network is expected to share Tuesday’s service, set for 11 a.m. our time. I’m sure social media and news stations will capture the highlights, so that we can all take in a little bit more of one of baseball’s greats.