This story about Hank Aaron was originally published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I’m waving this slightly edited version in front of your faces right now, on April 8, 2018, because it’s been 44 years since No. 44 broke the Babe’s record.
Hank Aaron was baseball’s humble virtuoso. Consistent as sunrise, he set an unmatched standard of sustained excellence as a player, breezed into the Hall of Fame and into the Atlanta Braves front office, started a business empire and a philanthropic foundation, had a Major League hitting award named in his honor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, settled gracefully into his position as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all time.
Aaron, the quiet superstar radiating organic poise, never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.
“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron says, as if you really should know this. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”
If Aaron sounds like a Boy Scout, he comes by it honestly – he was one. And he says his scouting experience, while growing up in heavily segregated Mobile, Ala., “was the greatest thing that happened to me as a kid, and it taught me the rules and regulations of life,” while his parents – Herbert and Estella – instilled in young Henry an adherence to the golden rule.
“That’s what they expected from me, that’s the way they wanted their kids to be,” says Aaron. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Of course that never applied to pitchers, whose favorite nicknames for Aaron were “Bad Henry,” and “The Hammer.”
In athletic mannerism and grace he seemed most similar to Joe DiMaggio who, like Aaron, was an outfielder who could hit for power and average. But Aaron took his cues from Jackie Robinson, whom he considers his role model.
Aaron was a young teen when he first saw Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.
“Here was the first African American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.
“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they carry themselves. He didn’t have to say anything to me, because I was paying attention.”
Good thing Robinson didn’t say anything, because Aaron – the man who stood up to vicious racism and death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record – says he probably would have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with fear. Robinson was to Aaron what Aaron became to legions of baby boomer ball fans – an idol.
So when the Georgia Historical Society announced that Aaron (along with Ted Turner) would be named a Georgia Trustee this year (2010), the tribute was particularly sweet because the society was simultaneously recognizing Robinson as its Georgia Days Honoree.
“It’s difficult to put into words what this honor means to me,” Aaron says. “Not only because I grew up in the South and have spent most of my life in Georgia, but also because of what Jackie Robinson meant to me, as a baseball player and a role model. This is something I’m very proud of.”
As a player Aaron was the coolest of customers, his easy tranquility disguising an intense focus and passion to succeed. To some observers, he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to commit violent abuse on a baseball, which he did with alarming regularity.
His career might best be viewed from a distance, from a vantage point of years. Aaron didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – he didn’t play in New York. He wasn’t flashy. But he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays.
He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more base hits, was probably their equal in the field, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974 passed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers and their starter, lefty Al Downing (who had been the first black pitcher in New York Yankees history).
“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” said Vin Scully, voice of the Dodgers, calling the game for a national audience. “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 the record of an all-time baseball idol.”
He broke into baseball as a teenager with the Mobile Black Bears, a semipro barnstorming team, and moved up to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League before being signed by the Milwaukee Braves, making his Major League debut with them in 1954. Aaron moved with the club to Atlanta in 1966, returning to the South as an established superstar. He was a Milwaukee Brewer when he hit his last home run, No. 755, in his final season, 1976.
On a cold December day, two months before his 76th birthday, he patiently guides a visitor through the maze of Atlanta Braves administrative offices at Turner Field, walking with the aching gait of a retired guy who rarely missed a day of work in 23 years of demanding, physical competition against strong, fast, often rough men.
“Things were a little different in those days,” Aaron says, smiling. “Especially the pitchers. Take a guy like Bob Gibson. He was not only dominating, he was scary. And tough. I saw him hit guys when he knew full well that he was going to bat the next inning – and that he would probably get thrown at.
“The great ones – like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal – had a real toughness about them. When they got into the sixth or seventh inning with a one-run lead, there was no way they would leave the game. Lot of guys today, by the sixth inning they’re looking for somebody to come in to relieve them.”
Aaron relished the one-on-one confrontation with pitchers and he’s proud of his accomplishments with a bat, but only if you ask him even then, in an understated way, because he had to face some savage racial punches while rewriting the record book, and much external baggage came with his records and it left some scars.
The chase for Ruth’s record was brutal. While players and most fans, especially in Atlanta, cheered Aaron’s run at history, he received piles of hate mail from anonymous racists who did not want a black man holding baseball’s most cherished record.
“I think that home run was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, one of the great thrills of my life and a great thrill for the black community. But it was not easy,” says Aaron, mellowed by time, understating the pressure. “There were people, a lot of them, who simply were not ready for me to break that record, because of my skin color.”
In 2007, Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs, passed Aaron’s home run record.
“It was bound to happen,” Aaron says. “I held it for a long time and enjoyed it. But just as I passed Babe Ruth and Bonds passed me, somebody’s gonna come along and pass him. That’s the nature of it. Records are made to be broken.”
Of all his baseball accomplishments, Aaron is most proud of the fact that he was able to play at the highest level for almost all of his 23 years in the Major Leagues.
“That’s the kind of record you achieve with the help of others,” he says. “In baseball, for me, that meant great teammates, guys like Eddie Mathews hitting in front of you or behind you in the batting order, protecting you.
“Even before I started playing, when I was still chasing my dream to play in the Majors, had it not been for other people helping, reaching out, I never would have made it, in spite of my ability. Plain and simple, anyone who has meant something to this country, who has done something great, had someone else giving them a hand along the way.”
And that’s what Aaron wanted to do when he retired as a player – well, that and get into business. He had a great run with his BMW dealerships and sold them just before the economic bust, still runs a thriving restaurant company and sits on numerous corporate boards, including the Atlanta Braves.
In the mid 1990s, he and his wife Billye started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The foundation became fully active and heftily funded in 1999, when the Aarons threw Hank a 65th birthday bash and fundraising event. President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries who helped raise $1 million for the foundation, which helps underprivileged children participate in activities they otherwise can’t afford, like music and sports. Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs have partnered with Aaron’s foundation to create a college scholarship fund also – they’ll give out 44 each year (Aaron wore No. 44).
Aaron, who was vice president of player development for years in the Braves organization, now has an untitled post that allows him to pursue his philanthropic passions, like helping to increase the number of African Americans in baseball by promoting the game to kids.
He counts ambassadors, presidents and CEOs as his friends – they all want to meet him. He’s comfortable with his life, modest in spite of his many awards and honors and accomplishments – he and Mays have become interchangeable in the “greatest living player” appellation. But his eye, as always, is on a bigger picture.
The foundation, his work with kids, it’s all about achieving their dreams, he says. Not his. He already chased his down.
“I love baseball, it’s given me so much, but that’s my world, and it isn’t everything,” he says. “I’d prefer people said, ‘Hank Aaron helped people,’ rather than ‘Hank Aaron hit that home run in the ninth inning’ – which is all right, too. It’s fine.
“But it means more to me when someone says, ‘Thanks to Mr. Aaron, I know how to play the harp,’ or ‘I know how to dance,’ or whatever it is they dream of doing. See, that’s what life is made of.”