Today Hank Aaron passed on at age 86. While he was a Brave for almost his entire career, with his last two seasons as a Brewer, he was one of those athletes that everyone felt belonged to them.
Growing up sitting in the left field bleachers, there were actually a few rules to heckling – no heckling Chicagoans, no heckling ex-Cubs, and no heckling Henry Louis Aaron.
Of course, it didn’t stop people from being fools. But there were really two reasons that I could figure. One was the true greatness of the man. He had an aura about him that as a 12 year old I couldn’t put my finger on it. I mean, one of my earliest heckle exchanges was with Willie Mays (Hey Willie, your hair’s getting gray! “Nah, kid. Those are speed lines”). But Aaron somehow seemed more regal and not just because we all figured it was a formality that he was passing Babe Ruth.
The other reason was that he absolutely slaughtered the Cubs (87 career HR, 326/376/589), and the last thing you wanted was to piss the man off and beat us even more.
Growing up, when they gave out numbers on whichever baseball team I was on, I’d generally be able to nab 14, Ernie Banks’ number. But 44 went right away too. And while Aaron was most identifiable by that number, the Giants’ Willie McCovey, another Alabama native, wore it as well.
In fact, in his book I Had A Hammer, he wrote that the Cubs’ Billy Williams (another Alabama native) also wanted to wear 44. The players wanted it to be a shared number among Black players from Alabama. However, the Cubs denied his request to change his number, so he kept 26.
When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees, he couldn’t wear the 9 that he’d worn in Oakland or Baltimore, so he chose 44 as his way of keeping Aaron’s legacy alive. In fact, Jackson wore it the rest of his career, including when he returned to Oakland.
When he was closing in on Ruth’s once-thought-unbreakable record of 714 career home runs, he received hate mail and death threats on a regular basis. In fact, he received so much hate mail that the Braves had to hire someone to handle it all. In fact, Aaron received 900,000 pieces of mail in one year, both hate mail and messages of encouragement, and earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. He broke Ruth’s record, then added another 40 home runs after that.
He took all that hatred and kicked its ass. A lot of players had to do that. Even “Mr. Sunshine” himself, Ernie Banks, said late in life that he loved hitting because the ball was the one thing that was white that he was allowed to hit.
He had to deal with the racism as a child growing up in Mobile. He had to endure it as a player on the Indianapolis Clowns, where he had to go by the name “Pork Chop”. He had to endure it even before he chased Ruth, not only going to cities as a Brave where Black players weren’t welcome, but also when the Braves themselves moved into the barely-post Jim Crow South.
From that he became the greatest home run hitter the game had ever seen.
But records are made to be broken. Just as Aaron passed Ruth, Barry Bonds passed Aaron. And Bonds had ostracization of his own to deal with, but that’s for another day.
One record that I don’t expect to see broken in my lifetime is Aaron’s 6856 total bases, over 700 more than the runner up, Stan Musial.
Not only was he great, he was consistently great. He had an wRC+ of under 100 exactly once in 22 seasons, at age 41 when he posted 95. From 1955-1971, he never posted a fWAR under 5. Never in his 22 seasons did he not hit double digits in home runs. 20 times he was an all-star. He’s 6th all time in fWAR.
Looking back now, I can fully appreciate how lucky it was to be a boy learning the game in the late 60s/early 70s when my dad would take me to the ballpark and along with the great Cubs I got to see, I’d get to see Aaron, Mays, Clemente and so many other greats. And I wasn’t alone.
Once, Tom Seaver spoke of being a little boy learning to pitch and he’d throw a ball against the wall, pretending to pitch to his favorite player. Of course he was pitching to Aaron.
Thanks sir. Rest easy.