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Aaron's Legacy Grander Than Mere Home Run King

apardavila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It seems incongruous, bordering on ridiculous now in the days just past his death last Friday to say that Henry Aaron was underrated.

How could a man who displayed so much grace and class in a spectacular life which ended just a few weeks short of 87 years be undervalued? 

It happened, and is still happening posthumously, because he knew who he was as a baseball player and, more importantly, as a man.

What you thought of Henry Aaron was not nearly as important as what he thought of himself. He was, in the trite saying of today, comfortable in his own skin. As such, he felt no need to inflate his own ego.

Compared to his baseball contemporaries, Henry Aaron was a Chevrolet Impala in a world of Ford Mustangs, a steady, dependable car among more showy roadsters.

He didn’t have Willie Mays’ flamboyance. He didn’t have Willie McCovey’s knack for hitting the ball a long way and he didn’t have Pete Rose’s knack for self-promotion.

Yet, when his 23-year big league career ended in 1976, Henry Aaron had driven in more runs, got more extra base hits and hit more home runs than anyone else in baseball history.

The first two of those marks are still true, while the home run achievement has fallen to Barry Bonds, who many baseball observers believe accumulated those homers in an illegitimate manner, through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

What remains is the idea that Henry Aaron conducted himself, from birth in Mobile, Ala., in the throes of Jim Crow in the 1930s until his death in the midst of a rise in White supremacy as a quiet source of strength and dignity.

One should never mistake Henry Aaron’s external serenity for blissful acceptance of his situation. Deep within his soul burned a fiery anger and justifiably so.

As he approached Babe Ruth’s sacred home run record in 1973 and 74, Henry Aaron came face to face with America’s racism. He received nearly 3,000 letters per day, a total of nearly 1 million, with the overwhelming majority of them hateful.

On that April night in 1974, when he finally passed the Babe, Henry Aaron’s mother was among the throng who greeted him at home plate at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Mrs. Aaron grabbed and hugged her son, not only out of parental pride, but to shield him in case someone wanted to shoot him. 

In a 1994 interview with William Rhoden of the New York Times, Henry Aaron said his children were the subject of kidnap threats and he had to “live like a pig in a slaughter camp.” The experience had “really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about.”

Yet, he remained a ceaseless source of grace and inspiration. That he could play and live that way was a testament to his integrity and greatness. 

You may have noticed that I have not once referred to him as Hank, his baseball nickname. To my mind, Henry Louis Aaron was royalty, and not just of a sporting nature. 

He was regal, and the name Hank does not befit the king that Henry Aaron was and will be for time immemorial.

And that’s how I see it for this week.


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