Among the transcendent stars in sports, few, if any, rise to the level of Hank Aaron.
Baseball’s one-time home run king made a name for himself on the diamond during a Hall-of-Fame career. An iconic figure in these parts, Aaron helped lead the Milwaukee Braves to a title in 1957. It stands to this day as the city’s lone World Series championship.
Known by the nickname Hammerin’ Hank for his power-hitting prowess, Aaron spent 12 seasons with the Braves in Milwaukee before the franchise moved to Atlanta, where he played another nine seasons. He returned to Milwaukee and played the final two years of his career with the Brewers.
Aaron died in his sleep at the age of 86, we learned on Friday. The news came as a shock to many, since Aaron appeared in national media reports just over two weeks ago as he received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Aaron is arguably the state’s greatest sports hero. It’s been 45 years since Aaron played his final game in Milwaukee, but his name remains synonymous with baseball in this city.
But his legacy involves far more than hitting home runs and chasing down fly balls. His story is one of perseverance in the face of blatant racism – a vitriol that became even more toxic as he chased one of the most celebrated records in sports.
I was a baseball-obsessed 9-year-old when Aaron stepped into the batter’s box at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta on an early spring night in 1974 with the eyes of the sports world fixated upon him. Aaron drove a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Al Downing over the left-centerfield fence for career home run No. 715, breaking the record long held by Babe Ruth, the New York Yankees’ larger-than-life slugger. Aaron cemented his status as baseball royalty – baseball’s home run king.
Growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania, I would watch broadcasts of Yankees games – aired over a New York City TV station – almost nightly with my dad. I was obsessed with the Yankees, so I had mixed emotions that night when I watched on television as Aaron shattered The Babe’s record. I was just a kid focused solely on baseball. I didn’t comprehend the social ramifications of that moment. I didn’t realize until years later how Aaron’s record-breaking homer transcended baseball.
Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully’s call of Aaron’s momentous round-tripper sums it up so eloquently. I get chills every time I watch the clip, even today, absorbing Scully’s important words as Aaron rounded the bases and crossed home plate to thunderous applause.
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia,” Scully said. “What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
Scully referred to Aaron as the “quiet lad out of Mobile, Alabama” and noted how Aaron’s facial expressions had shown the strain, and then relief, of chasing Ruth’s record. Aaron had been inundated with sickening hate mail and death threats from those who felt that he, as a Black man, wasn’t worthy of the home run title.
Aaron would end his career with 755 homers, a record eventually surpassed by Barry Bonds, who belted 762 but who did so during baseball’s steroid era.
I’ve been lucky to have had a few encounters with Aaron over the years. The first came when I was in my 20s at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport as I prepared to board a flight to Pennsylvania to visit my family. In the main atrium of the airport, I spotted a man sitting by himself and, after a double take, realized it was Aaron. No entourage. Only him.
Finding myself in a bit of a panic and not sure how to handle the moment, I ducked into the cluttered bookstore in the airport’s lobby and desperately asked the clerk behind the counter if the store had any Hank Aaron books on hand.
He pointed me to a paperback version of I Had a Hammer, a book Aaron wrote with sportswriter Lonnie Wheeler in which he addressed difficult issues, including his encounters with racism.
I cobbled together some cash from my pocket, purchased the book and then hustled back to the seating area, relieved to find Aaron still there. I sheepishly approached him, said hello and politely asked him if he’d be so kind as to sign the book. He did and I told him what an honor it was to see him. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I headed out to catch my flight, overwhelmed by the moment and wishing I had said more.
A short time later, I embarked on a career as a reporter, and I’ve had a few opportunities to again cross paths with Aaron in professional situations. One was a hot summer afternoon a few years ago when he returned to Milwaukee to speak about the expansion of the Hank Aaron State Trail. It traverses the Menomonee Valley and fittingly cuts a path past American Family Field, home of the Brewers and near where Milwaukee County Stadium once stood. That’s where Aaron displayed the skills that would make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Permanent reminders of Aaron can be found in and around American Family Field. He is a member of the ballpark’s Walk of Fame, honored as part of the inaugural class in 2001. The statue of Aaron outside the stadium had a few bouquets of flowers left at its base on Friday.
His memory permeates baseball outside of Milwaukee, as well. The Hank Aaron Award is given annually the top hitter in American and National leagues.
Brewers legend and fellow Hall of Famer Robin Yount issued a statement on Friday in which he said Aaron had been the greatest influence on his career. “The way that Hank, the greatest player of all time, played the game, carried himself on and off the field, and remained humble, made the greatest impact on me as a 19-year-old. None of that ever changed in the 45 years since Hank retired. He was a great man, and his friendship will be sorely missed.”