Aaron was a beacon of unmatched grace

January 22nd, 2021

He was a child of Mobile, Ala., was, and what he called his finishing school in baseball was with the Indianapolis Clowns of the old Negro Leagues, and all he did after Mobile and after Indianapolis was break the most famous record in American sports, Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 home runs.

He is gone now, at the age of 86. It is the end of a remarkable American life, one about talent and grace and possibilities and courage in the face of racism. Maybe grace most of all, from a giant of a man who became as much the conscience and soul of his game as anyone the game has ever known.

I was lucky enough to speak with him on the phone from time to time over the last years of his life. We spoke of the Negro Leagues and social justice in the immediate shadow of George Floyd’s death. We spoke of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and a friendship with Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig that lasted more than 60 years.

“There was something that Jackie taught us, and all the Black players who followed him,” the man I called Mr. Aaron told me last June, “and that was to never take no for an answer.”

And then this extraordinary man, whose own life as a Black man mattered so immensely to the history of his sport and to his country, was talking about the Black Lives Matter protests he was watching at the time on television.

“I’m not able to move around much anymore,” he told me that day. “But if I could, I’d be out there marching. I’d be right there at the front of the line.”

He is right there at the front of the line of the most important and most talented players in the history of baseball, not just because he hit his 715th home run and passed Ruth, on his way to hitting 755 in all. He never hit 50 home runs in a season. But he hit at least 40 eight times. He wasn’t just a model of grace, he was a model of consistency. He was six feet tall and 180 pounds hitting all those home runs, joking one time that “the only thing I ever took was chewing gum.” But the number about which the great Hank Aaron was most proud was his RBI total of 2,297. No one has ever knocked in more.

I asked him one time if he had any regrets, and the old man laughed and said, “I never won the Triple Crown. I look back now and can’t figure out how I didn’t win two or three!”

He played for the Braves in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta, which is where he did finally break Ruth’s record, enduring not just the pressure of that quest, but the racist letters he would receive day after day after day, because there was an angry, bigoted section of America that did not want the Black man to break the great white star’s record.

Aaron, who some nights would sneak out of ballparks through back gates as he was trying to pass Ruth, shared one of the letters with Sports Illustrated once. This was part of it: "You are not going to break his record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it.” The letter devolved from there.

I was sitting with him at Cooperstown a couple of years ago, on the day when my friend Bob Costas was honored with the Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters. I asked that day why he’d kept those letters.

“Because they’re part of my story, too,” Aaron said.

He loved Jackie Robinson fiercely, was inspired by Robinson and even in his 80s was talking, almost with a touch of awe in his voice, about how Robinson was good at everything. “Even cards!” Aaron said.

He always honored the fact that Jackie had come first, lit the road ahead for him and Mays and others when they came along in the 1950s. Aaron always honored the men he played with when he was making $200 a month playing for the Clowns, before the then-Boston Braves bought his contract for $10,000, talking about how he had stood on the shoulders of the older Negro Leagues players who would never get the chance that he got.

He loved to talk about the great pitchers he had faced in his 23 years in the big leagues. I mentioned Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal one day when we were talking on the phone, and of course Sandy Koufax. And then Aaron said, “And don’t forget a young man who came along at the end of the '60s. Mr. Seaver.”

That was the day he told me that he and Koufax had an “understanding.”

“What was the understanding?” I said.

“That sometimes he was gonna get me,” Aaron said, “and sometimes I was gonna get him.”

He was a baseball star as big as anyone across three different decades. He was a teenager when Robinson broke the color barrier. He was a few years younger than Mays. He worked for the Braves once he retired and was a successful businessman, and worked for years and years to help raise money for the United Negro College Fund. It was his way of paying the blessings of his own life forward. It was a way, at least symbolically, for young people of color to stand on his shoulders.

So he is gone now, this quiet, remarkable man dying quietly in his sleep, the kid from Mobile born two years into FDR’s first administration having lived long enough to see Joe Biden sworn in as President in January 2021, the same month when Hank Aaron even received the COVID vaccine. But for all the good he did, and all the passion for justice he carried inside him, he was a ballplayer.

When he thought there might not be a season in 2020, he softly said this one day on the phone:

“God, I love baseball.”

God’s gift to baseball saying that.