There may very well never be another baseball player who achieves the stature of Henry Aaron, who passed away on Friday at age 86. So much more as a ballplayer than a mere home run king and so much more as a man than a mere ballplayer, Aaron was an unlikely candidate to become a transcendent figure. He played in markets unfamiliar to the sporting establishment, Milwaukee and Atlanta, appearing as those cities fought for recognition as legitimate big league towns. He possessed no singularly outstanding season or performance. Neither his personality nor his style of play were loud or flashy.
But on an April night in Georgia, when Aaron, still trim at age 40, slashed a home run into the Braves bullpen to break the most cherished record in the history of organized sports, he entered into a different realm. He hadn’t set out to break Babe Ruth’s career home run mark; he didn’t even consider himself a home run hitter. The stress of the chase was so great, his only joy in the moment was the relief that it was over.
Aaron was just 20 years old when he joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, and the city and slugger were quick to embrace each other. A promising rookie season was followed with a breakout campaign in 1955. Aaron hit .314 with 27 homers, he was named an All-Star and received MVP votes. He’d appear in the next 24 All-Star Games and would get MVP consideration for each of the next 19 seasons. He would play with a kind of clockwork brilliance that would, like his later coronation as baseball’s home run king, leave one of the most honored players in the game somehow still underrated. He won just one league MVP award (Milwaukee’s 1957 World Series championship season) but was constantly among the game’s best players. And he was constantly overshadowing himself statistically. He’d win a batting title and distract from his home run total. He’d win a home run crown and his excellent stolen base totals would be overlooked. He’d near a triple crown season and obscure his sterling reputation in the field.
Aaron felt at home in Milwaukee – both during his time as a Brave and afterward. He brought a title to the city in 1957 and nearly another in 1958. His play elevated Milwaukee from a bush league outpost to a baseball powerhouse at a time when baseball dominated the national sporting landscape. Aaron was a star, but, as Howard Bryant wrote in his excellent Aaron biography, The Last Hero, “Henry craved to be a part of the larger world.”
He pressed the Braves to push back against local segregation ordinances at the Florida spring training facilities. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary. He spoke out and wrote about the failure of baseball to address its race problems, in particular the lack of people of color in leadership positions. He began to defy what white America expected from their Black ball-playing idols.
When the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta following the 1965 season, in the thick of the nation’s civil rights struggles, Aaron was heartbroken. “I have lived in the South and I don’t want to live there again,” He told a reporter. “This is my home. I’ve lived here since I was 19 years old. We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”
In his stat line, Atlanta was more of the same for Aaron: more homers, more honors, more milestones. He hit homer #500, then 600. He topped the 3,000-hit mark – a total he had been aiming for since the beginning. But the good feelings of Milwaukee were gone. It wasn’t until he began to chase Ruth that the Atlanta fans truly warmed to him.
The chase would wear on Aaron: the media attention, the autographs, the demands on his time. And then there was the hate mail. So much of it that the Braves had to hire a woman to read through the thousands of letters Aaron was receiving each week so the threats could be reported to the FBI. The letters weighed on Aaron’s mind. He saved them all and absorbed their barbs. “They carved a piece of my heart away,” he said years later.
The summer he broke the record, his relationship with both the Braves and the local Atlanta media convinced him that 1974 would be his last as a Brave. It was assumed he’d retire, but instead he arranged for a trade back to Milwaukee. He spend two seasons with the Brewers, looking his age for the first time in his long career. But he breathed easier than he had in years.
Although he eventually took a front office position with the Braves, Aaron’s heart would forever remain in Milwaukee. He returned to the city often, tending to his business interests or for charity work. He came back for political causes, his work for Kennedy in 1960 starting a lifelong affiliation with the Democratic Party. And he came back, again and again, for the Brewers – to lobby in Madison for the building of the new stadium, for honors and first pitches, to close County Stadium and to open Miller Park. He had planned to be there this past season to commemorate the Brewers 50th anniversary before the disruption of COVID-19. “It feels like home,” he said in 1999. “This city feels like home.”