Aaron was a winner on and off the diamond
By Vaughn Wilson
Special to the Outlook
The outpouring of love for Henry “Hank” Aaron in his passing was as much about the gentleman he was off the diamond as it was about him slugging home runs. Aaron, nicknamed “Hammerin Hank,” was adored by fans the world over. It was not always that way.
Aaron, who made his debut in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns, was quickly scooped up by the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves would later move to their current home in Atlanta.
It was in Atlanta where Aaron died last Friday at age 86.
During his career, he amassed an amazing 21 All-Star seasons, playing in 25 All-Star games in all as some years there were two All-Star games. He was a solid fielder and obviously an even better batter. He was known for the long ball. He ended his career with 755 home runs. None was more important than 715.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr., held the home run title prior to Aaron. He had a second nickname “the Sultan of Swat.” Ruth held the Major League Baseball (MLB) record for home runs at 714 after retiring in 1935. It was a number thought to be unattainable by another pro baseball player.
Aaron’s unassuming career found him approaching Ruth’s record in 1974. What ensued was the rearing of racism at its ugliest. Aaron began to get threats as he approached the milestone.
Much like the calm demeanor of Jackie Robinson, Aaron’s personality was a perfect fit for the racial epithets he would have to endure as he continued to succeed. Many never knew as he was going through this difficult stretch of his life that he was actually facing. As the 1974 season wore on and he got closer to Ruth’s record, he would receive an estimate 3,000 pieces of hate mail daily. He would have to hire a secretary to manage the load. Some threatened to follow the Braves around the country and kill him if he didn’t suddenly retire before eclipsing the all-time home run record.
Outwardly, he did not complain about his situation, but continued to excel on the field. It was not until the season was over he divulge to the public the hate mail and threats he received as racist southerners did not want a negro to supplant the legendary Ruth. Even the MBL Commissioner Bowie Kuhn expressed his displeasure with Aaron’s achievement, choosing not to be present in Fulton County Stadium as he broke the record on Aug. 8, 1974.
The toll went beyond Aaron himself, it extended to his family. There were threats to kidnap and kill his children and hurt his family. He required extra security after breaking Ruth’s record. He would exit ballparks separate from the team to avoid disclosing his location. He had to totally refrain from doing simple things like going to the grocery store. Aaron was bitter and looked at America as a failed country. That feeling went on for years.
Somehow, he held it in. He internalized the calamity and presented himself as the better man at all times. It is a big part of why America in general loved Hank Aaron. Upon getting enshrined into the baseball hall of fame, Aaron finally exhaled. He was a first-ballot selection … extremely uncommon for Cooperstown. Still, there were dissenters even at that junction. He attained 97 percent of votes to go into the hall of fame in a situation where he clearly should have gotten a unanimous affirmation.
From being called alligator bait by the raucous fans in the minor leagues to the death threats in the major leagues, Aaron never lost his cool. For that as much has his towering homers, he became one of the most beloved figures in all of baseball.