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peter abraham | on baseball

Hank Aaron: A magnificent ballplayer and a profile in courage

Hank Aaron in 2011.
Hank Aaron in 2011.EARL WILSON/NYT

Major League Baseball has presented the Hank Aaron Award to the best offensive players in each league since 1999. The winners are recognized at the World Series.

In 2019, there was some question about whether Aaron would be on hand for the ceremony. He had been using a wheelchair, and traveling from his home in Georgia to Houston could be difficult.

But Aaron arrived before Game 2, and as word spread through Minute Maid Park that he would join the news conference, what is usually a comfortably sized room grew small.

Jose Altuve, in full uniform, popped out of the Astros clubhouse to shake Aaron’s hand. David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez, on hand working for Fox, clustered around him like star-struck kids, waiting their turn to share a moment.

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Reporters, team officials, and others all wanted to catch a glimpse of the player who for many was a personal favorite when they were growing up.

Using those same strong wrists that hit 755 home runs, Aaron stood up from the wheelchair and gripped the podium tightly to say a few words. Commissioner Rob Manfred stayed close in case he was needed, doting on Aaron as if he were a relative.

Hank Aaron (center) with a couple of his fans — David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez — at the 2019 World Series.
Hank Aaron (center) with a couple of his fans — David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez — at the 2019 World Series.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Is there anybody who didn’t admire Hank Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86?

It seems impossible not to. At a time when our nation is still wrestling with the stain of racism, Aaron’s undaunted pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record, which he broke in 1974, amid threats to his life remains a profile in courage.

So many menacing letters were mailed to his home and to Atlanta Stadium, the FBI started a file that became a series of boxes, and Aaron’s daughter was guarded because of kidnapping threats.

Aaron, an Alabama native who started his career in the Negro Leagues before signing with the Boston Braves in 1952 and reaching the majors in 1954 after they’d moved to Milwaukee, looked to the example of Jackie Robinson to guide him through the ordeal.

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“I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people,” Aaron wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “I Had a Hammer.”

“It’s something I’m still trying to get over.”

When Aaron connected off Al Downing on April 8, 1974, to break the record, Vin Scully said it best from the broadcast booth: “What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

During his playing career and into retirement, Aaron was an unflinching advocate for civil rights, sometimes blunt with his words and willing to use his platform as the star player for what at the time was the only major league team in the South.

“He was the best person I ever knew, and the truest, most honest person that I ever knew,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who batted behind Aaron the night he broke the record and became one of his closest friends.

Aaron finished with 755 homers, a record that Barry Bonds officially, and nefariously, broke in 2007.

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But that doesn’t tell the complete story. Aaron had more walks (1,402) than strikeouts (1,383), and even if you take away those 755 home runs, he had 3,016 hits.

He finished his career with 1,063 more total bases than Ruth and 125 more home runs than Ken Griffey Jr. Aaron’s quick, compact swing rarely failed him.

Powerful wrists helped Aaron set major league records with 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases in addition to his 755 home runs.
Powerful wrists helped Aaron set major league records with 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases in addition to his 755 home runs.Joe Holloway, Jr./Associated Press

Aaron also stole 240 bases, won three Gold Gloves, and made the All-Star team every year from 1955–75. The only exceptions were his first season and his last. To put that in some perspective, Dwight Eisenhower was president the first time Aaron was an All-Star and Gerald Ford the last time.

Yet it’s fair to say Aaron remains underrated. He didn’t have the charisma of Ruth and Ted Williams or the flair of Willie Mays.

Aaron’s legacy is simple, but powerful. He was a consistently excellent player on the field and a man committed to making this a better country than the one he grew up in.

“I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth,” Aaron once said. “I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.