Tarnished Greatness: The Sad Legacy of Hank Aaron

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The baseball world lost one of the titans of the sport on last month with Braves legend Henry “Hank” Aaron passing away at the age of 86. Still considered the legitimate home run king by many traditionalists and new fans alike, Aaron smashed 755 round trippers in his day and batted in 2,297 runs, a record which still stands in 2021. However, to sell Aaron’s career purely as that of a power hitter is to do him a massive disservice . He also accumulated 3771 hits (3rd all time), 624 doubles (13th all time), 1477 extra base hits (1st all time), 1402 walks (27th all time), and 132.5 WAR (5th all time).  Aaron’s speed and defense are easy to overlook, but he played excellent defense well into the wrong side of 30. He also amassed 98 career triples to go along with 240 career steals. 

The numbers paint a clear picture, one that many contemporaries would likely agree with in spades. Hank Aaron may have been most famous for his power, but it’s his total package as a player that lifts him into the ranks of baseball’s best of the best.  To apply the term “elite” to Aaron seems perhaps as appropriate as applying the term “big” to the universe.  While it’s technically true, it doesn’t even begin to paint the entire picture.  His dominance was simply on a level that the game has only seen a couple of other times, and the truth is that he didn’t get enough recognition for it at the time.  He still doesn’t, in my opinion.

So why does Hank Aaron still seem to fly under the radar?  That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say about a man who held the home run record for so many years, but as I’ve hopefully established, only talking about his home runs is excluding so much of what made him great.  I suggest two reasons for this phenomenon. 

First off, it’s likely that Aaron’s reserved nature made him a poor fit for headlines and publicity until he became a threat to Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run crown.  As long as the sport has been played, players flamboyant and controversial have always drawn the most attention. For all their flaws, men like Ruth, Mantle and Bonds commanded center stage in a way that Aaron often failed to.  

However, the major reason is probably one much less innocuous:  Aaron was a black man who was on the march to break a white man’s record.  To many, this was an unacceptable turn of events, and living in the deep South only exacerbated the racism that Hank Aaron faced.  While articles have been written about Aaron’s grace under pressure and his ability to quietly ignore the vitriol that came his way, these are (perhaps unintentional) dismissals of what Aaron went through on a daily basis. 

Perceived by many as a villainous figure set to slander baseball’s holy grail, Aaron received a shameful flood of death threats, slurs, and mistreatment at the hands of baseball fans and non fans alike.  The deluge was such that the Braves organization hired a secretary specifically to deal with Aaron’s mail.  And while many showed their support for Hammerin’ Hank during these dark times, an interview in 1990 with the New York Times showed that, to Aaron, the negatives strongly outweighed the positives.  With a sober tone, the then-home run king described his legendary achievements in terms that should weigh on the heart of every fan.  

“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Aaron recalled.  “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

To know that a man who brought so much joy to so many on that day found so little in it for himself is nothing short of disheartening. Baseball owes Hank Aaron a debt that can never be repaid.  It’s unbearably sad that Hammerin’ Hank Aaron walks into that cornfield in Iowa not in triumph and glory, but in relief.  Perhaps there, he will finally be able to find happiness in the game again.

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