The long life and legacy of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron may be best summed up from a quote from his autobiography, I Had a Hammer.
I used to have talks with Jackie Robinson not long before he died, and he impressed upon me that I should never allow myself to be satisfied with the way things are. I can’t let Jackie down — or my people, or myself. The day I become content is the day I cease to be anything more than a man who hit home runs.
Today, in celebrating the life of Hank Aaron, most commentators have reflected on his status as the first professional baseball player to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. Most have even gone so far as to call him the “true home run king,” due to the cloud of steroid allegations surrounding Barry Bonds’s home run records from this century. But while Aaron was a home run hero, he also wanted to be remembered for far more than that.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, Aaron came of age during the height of the Great Depression, and just as one stage of the civil rights movement was beginning to take shape. He experienced poverty that would have been familiar to many other African Americans in the South during the Depression, coloring how he saw his responsibility to other black people for the rest of his life. Growing up poor, he barely had access to baseballs, bats, or gloves. Baseball gave Aaron an opportunity to escape from poverty — in much the same way as it has operated for African Americans across the nation, or players from Latin America today.
Aaron began his career with the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns, becoming one of the last Major League players to jump from the Negro Leagues. In that sense, his life serves as a symbolic bridge: between the need for the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, and Major League Baseball’s often half-hearted embrace of black players in the 1950s and 1960s. Playing in Milwaukee and Atlanta for his entire MLB career, Aaron became one of the signature players for the Braves. From 1954 until 1976 — spanning the time between the Brown v. Board of Education decision and Richard Nixon’s resignation during the Watergate scandal — Aaron displayed a consistency of excellence on the baseball field that was so taken for granted by baseball fans, it is almost forgotten. Looking beyond his home runs, Aaron had 3,771 hits total, meaning that even if he had never hit a single home run in his career, he would have still been in the rarefied air of only thirty-two baseball players with over three thousand hits.
There is one home run for which Aaron is remembered, of course. The 715th homer of Aaron’s career, hit on April 8, 1974, broke his tie with Babe Ruth for the most home runs ever hit by a Major League Baseball player.
Aaron faced death threats for daring to break the most cherished record in American sports — and he did so as the face of a post-civil-rights-era “New South,” summarized by Dodgers announcer Vin Scully proclaiming in surprise that “a black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South.” But the fact that Aaron required security while simply trying to do his job as a baseball player was a stark reminder that the South — and the entire nation — had a great distance left to travel.
Aaron lived long enough to see enormous changes in American society. But he never lost sight of the need to fight and struggle on behalf of others. He continued, until the end of his life, to speak up on behalf of African Americans.
In 2017, as most Americans turned against Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Aaron stated that he was “getting a raw deal” from NFL owners who refused to even consider bringing the former player back into the league. As Hank Aaron, in death, is serenaded with paeans to his “grace” and his “humble” demeanor, let us not forget that he looked up to Jackie Robinson as an example — and that both men were unmistakably, and unabashedly, black men who fought to make chances for other black people in a hostile society.