Sheesh. I guess it is about time to hear about Hank Aaron.
So, steering somewhat clear of the current racial unrest in America, and sticking to how the black athletes of my generation were able to navigate, the story of Hank Aaron is a great example of the times and the challenges.
Yes, I can remember when Hammerin’ Hank hit the home run off Al Downing that topped Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs. I was at home in Clovis, CA, living on Minnewawa Street. My roommate Steve Haskell might have been there at the time, or maybe not. But I remember the moment well.
And so does Hank. I was fairly oblivious at the time to the racial overtones of a black man conquering the highest-profile record in the most high profile sport, moving past the most high profile player (Babe Ruth) of all time. Henry Aaron has been voted the 5th greatest baseball player of all time. You would probably recognize the 4 names above him and the 20 names below. I am not sure I agree with the rankings. Given the achievements and the hurdles he had to overcome, he easily could be ranked #1.
Hank Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, to a poor family with 6 other children. Amazingly, his brother Tommie also became a professional ballplayer.
Aaron’s childhood idol was Jackie Robinson. SSOMG would be telling Jackie’s story, alongside this one, but Jackie’s career ended in 1957 when I was 4 years old. I am sure I remember nothing about Jackie’s career except what I have read since that time. I am sure Jackie had to overcome incredible challenges and racial discrimination throughout his career. He was the cutting edge that made the careers of Hank Aaron and all the black ball players since then possible.
Aaron was signed to a major league contract on the last day of the 1954 Spring Training season. Over the next 22 seasons, he was named to the All Star team 21 times. Playing for Milwaukee Braves in 20 of those seasons, Aaron had over 3000 hits and ended his career with the then major league all-time record of 755 home runs, breaking Ruth’s record of 714 early in the 1974 season. His record would stand for over 30 years, until it was broken by Barry Bonds in 2007.
During the 1973 and 1974 seasons, as Hank approached the record, the milestone became more difficult to reach…not just physically, but mentally as well. Throughout his career he was met with challenges due to his race and in surpassing Ruth’s home run mark, he faced the ultimate challenge.
Hank Aaron met that challenge, despite the hate mail and the racial slurs of many baseball fans; Aaron was able to peacefully and successfully overcome. Aaron has often referred to the message of Martin Luther King as helping to provide the strength to deal with the prejudice and inequality.
Just like Dr. King, Hank Aaron had a dream. His dream included justice and equality and peace and love for all; it also included him playing out a career in professional baseball greater than any other.
Hank Aaron was always a prince of peace in the baseball world, though his playing days spanned a time in the US when racial demonstrations and riots were common. He believed in organized, non-violent protest, just as Dr. King did. Aaron demonstrated his beliefs and advanced the message of equality as a member of the Milwaukee Braves, as the best player in the major leagues at a time of major unrest. SSOMG salutes Hank Aaron, not only as one of the 5 best baseball players of all-time, but as a voice of reason and progress in a country that needed mending, and forever will seek more of the same.