Henry "Hank" Aaron was born in Alabama three years after Willie Mays, 85 years ago Tuesday. Now, all this time later, Aaron is as much the conscience and the soul of baseball as any man alive. But we don't just celebrate a great baseball life. We celebrate a great American
Henry "Hank" Aaron was born in Alabama three years after Willie Mays, 85 years ago Tuesday. Now, all this time later, Aaron is as much the conscience and the soul of baseball as any man alive. But we don't just celebrate a great baseball life. We celebrate a great American life.
Aaron was the man who came out of the Deep South and then played for the Atlanta Braves the night he broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. Then and now, he was a figure of immense grace, to go along with all his immense talent in the game of baseball.
"What a marvelous moment for baseball," Vin Scully said on television that night when Aaron hit home run No. 715. "What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world."
Aaron ended up hitting 755 home runs in the big leagues, 41 more than Ruth, doing so across 23 seasons. He never hit 50 in a season even though he exceeded 40 eight times. Aaron never played with the flash or swagger of Mays, but he had a beautiful game and a beautiful swing. Former Met Ron Swoboda always had the same frame of reference when describing excellence, in any field of endeavor, when he was working in television.
"It's like watching Henry Aaron hit," Swoboda would say.
"If you want to understand what kind of man Hank is, you should read some of the letters he got when he was chasing Babe Ruth," said Bud Selig, former MLB Commissioner and Aaron's dear and lifelong friend.
Here is one, which Mr. Aaron once famously shared for Sports Illustrated: "You are not going to break his record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. Whites are far more superior than [slur]. ... My gun is watching your every black move.'"
At Cooperstown last summer, I sat with Aaron at a reception on a Saturday afternoon and asked him why he kept those letters.
"Because they were a part of my story, too," he said.
Aaron's story was not Jackie Robinson's story, of course. His journey was not Robinson's journey. Aaron was 13 years old when Robinson ran out to first base at Ebbets Field in April 1947, not just breaking baseball's color barrier in that moment, but changing his country for the better. In that moment, Robinson became, whether he knew it at the time or not, one of the most important figures ever produced by the civil rights movement in the United States.
But the great Aaron followed that path and in Robinson's footsteps the way Mays did in the 1950s in America, the way all the other African-American players who followed Robinson across the color barrier followed that path. Robinson made it easier for all of them, but it still was not easy for any of them. Later, Aaron had the letters to prove it. Maybe that is why it was such a fine and symbolic point -- that when he broke Ruth's home run record, he broke it in the South.
Aaron is an extraordinary man. You do not have to spend much time with him to understand his presence, strength and the understanding he carried with him out of Alabama, through the Negro Leagues and into Milwaukee with the Braves in the 1950s. To understand how big guys in this country are supposed to act in anything. There was never a moment too big for Aaron, on or off the field.
Aaron ended up with 755 homers, 3,771 hits, 2,297 RBIs and a lifetime batting average of .305. He hit .300 or better 14 times. Not once did he strike out 100 times in a season.
Ruth was a huge, swaggering figure. For all intents and purposes, he invented the New York Yankees and the home run. Mays played the game with more flair. Robinson had a distinctive and thrilling pizzazz himself, changing the way the game looked when he finally made it to Brooklyn, and not just because of the color of his skin.
Aaron still had one of the storied and lasting careers in the history of American sports. He played until he was 42, having returned to Milwaukee in 1975 to play for the Brewers as a designated hitter. Even at the end, he had enough stick left to hit 10 homers for the Brewers in 85 games in '76.
More than that, Aaron was a gentleman. Even when he was no longer playing, he still knew how you were supposed to act. He continued to honor his own talent, legacy and place in the sport's history and in our culture. There was a moment that Saturday at Cooperstown when he and his wife Billiye came through the front door. Aaron was in a wheelchair, but everything in the room around him stopped once he was in that room, and it wasn't just the people at the reception giving way. It was as if baseball were giving way.
Aaron spoke to me that day of the "power of baseball." But all who spent time with him that day, in that place, understood the power of his presence and character, and what my friend Pete Hamill, who grew up a Robinson guy, has always called "an old-fashioned thing called grace."
"I'm still here," Aaron said in Cooperstown. Born in the 1930s, a rookie in the '50s, breaking Ruth's record in the '70s and now, celebrating another birthday. Still here. Baseball is better for that. So is his country.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.