Hank Aaron was baseball’s towering titan, with grace even greater than his numbers | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

The first baseball player whose number I knew by heart was Henry Aaron. The “44” was more recognizable to me than Babe Ruth’s No. 3, which lay too far in baseball’s past for a teenager in the 1970s, or Willie Mays’ No. 24, because one so rarely saw the Giants, located in distant San Francisco, in those days of "Game of the Week" television. 

Aaron’s games were more accessible than that for baseball fans growing up in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee in those days. The first was simple geography: when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, a family in the Southeast could make a day trip out of seeing big-league baseball in person without having to make the long haul to St. Louis or Cincinnati.

Those weren’t vintage Braves teams, except for the 1969 National League West champions that were steamrolled out of the playoffs. Not long after that, fledgling cable systems in those areas started adding WTBS to their channel offerings as a general entertainment option. (TBS would not really become the “Superstation” until Ted Turner purchased it in 1976.) You could watch “Andy Griffith” or “Gomer Pyle” in reruns, boo the dastardly Assassins on Georgia Championship Wrestling and, in the summertime, watch the Braves and the marvelously consistent Aaron, a model of power and consistency. 

Hank Aaron

He was a well-established superstar by 1973, although you rarely heard him mentioned in the reverent tones reserved for Mickey Mantle or Mays, Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. He entered the 500-home run club fairly quietly.

But a couple of funny things happened. First, he kept on hitting home runs at the same steady clip he always had. Second, times were changing in the South. Alabama football, and the rest of the Southeastern Conference, went from being segregated in 1966 to having black players in prominent roles by 1974. But “change” does not mean “transformed.” Change is a process, sometimes a slow one. Even if a majority of a population accepts change, there are always those who resist it, a proposition equally true in 2021 as it was in 1974. 

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So when Aaron spent a long, grueling offseason in 1973-74 just one home run away from Ruth’s all-time home run record, there were baseball fans and ordinary citizens who were thrilled and those who were not.

I often wonder how much easier Aaron’s life would have been if he could have squeezed out two more home runs at the end of 1973. Instead, he was the object of six months of scrutiny and of the worst sort of abuse. It wasn’t a secret that Aaron received hate mail and death threats. “Peanuts,” the most popular comic strip in America, ran episodes about it. And, as Aaron himself said, even if 99 percent of the threats were crackpots, cranks and paper-tiger bigots, what if just one was serious? He had to take precautions, be wary and stand above the abuse.

Millions of words have been written this weekend about the home run off Al Downing, about the symbolism of a Black man breaking the record with dignity and grace. Aaron himself, in many interviews, admitted that he saw a side of America he had never seen before, quite a statement from a man who grew up in segregated Mobile.

He went on to add more home runs, to play a couple of twilight years in Milwaukee, where he had started with the Braves and finished as a Brewer. His achievements landed him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, of course. His election wasn’t unanimous, which probably had less to do with racism than the quirkiness of the Baseball Writers of America electorate, a few of whom held to the belief that if Ruth and Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson weren’t elected unanimously (they weren’t), then no one should be.

Aaron and Mays and Jackie Robinson weren’t unanimous choices, but neither were Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Mantle or anyone else until Mariano Rivera a couple of years ago.

Aaron handled it all, faced the worst sort of racist hatred and abuse. No doubt it saddened him, changed him in deep ways. Yet he never let it make him so bitter that he walked away. He maintained a presence with the Braves, was honored with a stadium in Mobile, never let the blind rage he encountered inspire him to blind rage in return.

One obituary of Aaron on Friday described him as baseball’s “one-time home run king,” citing the numbers accumulated by Barry Bonds in the steroid era. That’s a different debate for a different time. But you do not need adjectives to describe Henry Aaron.

”King” will do just fine.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt