Mr. Hank Aaron: The one true home run king

Everything written or said these past few hours about Mr. Aaron – neither Henry nor Hank to me, but Mr. Aaron – has spoken to the best part of ourselves. A part we have too often misplaced. That part where understanding and grace and strength of character still hold out.

A million words have been spent trying to define a life of great meaning. And everything has been so aptly put – with one glaring exception.

From the AJC: “Aaron, at one time baseball’s all-time home run king, died Friday at the age of 86.”

From the New York Times: “Hank Aaron, who faced down racism as he eclipsed Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king, hitting 755 homers and holding the most celebrated record in sports for more than 30 years, has died. He was 86.”

From “Aaron passed Ruth on the all-time home run list on April 8, 1974, at age 40. ... He was baseball’s home run king for 33 years.”

These tributes to Mr. Aaron all come with the mistaken claim that he was, not is, the home run king. The error is in giving blind obedience to a number rather than obeying the heart. There are those of us who never will concede that he doesn’t still hold the most cherished mark in baseball.

ExploreRead and sign the guestbook for Hank Aaron

Not when 755 always will carry far more significance than whatever number Barry Bonds posted. OK, fine, it was 762, not that it resonates in any way.

In this monarchy, the people crown who they please. And the crown belongs squarely on a head that didn’t grow several sizes during some biochemistry experiment gone mad.

Mr. Aaron wouldn’t care to have his accomplishments burnished by tearing down another player. He was a better man than that. But can’t say the same for myself.

When Bonds passed Mr. Aaron’s 755 in 2007, the moment naturally lacked all the greater racial and social ramifications of passing Babe Ruth in 1974. But it also lacked the air of authenticity. It was abundantly clear that Bonds had pumped himself up on performance enhancers – the same certainty that keeps him out of the Hall of Fame today – while we know that Mr. Aaron’s record was as all natural as sunshine itself.

On the night Bonds hit No. 756, Aaron said in a taped message, “I’ll move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”

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Baseball legend Hank Aaron died at the age of 86. Here he talks with the AJC about his legacy in a 2014 interview.

He never would condemn Bonds with anywhere near the volume or vitriol of his most zealous fans. Why would a man who had to wade through so much ugliness to get to his record willingly get into the mud again to defend it?

Mr. Aaron’s death has given reason once more to put him in Bonds’ shady company. The sin is that there is any need to invoke Bonds’ name at all in the same breath. But at least the comparison makes the far better man seem even better.

Of the stories considering again where these two stand in baseball’s collective conscience, the most scathing by far came from Jeff Pearlman, a Bonds biographer. The headline of the piece in Deadspin leaves no room for interpretation: “Hank Aaron was everything, Barry Bonds was nothing.”

To his way of thinking it is clear-cut. There is Mr. Aaron. And there is the Anti-Aaron.

In part, Pearlman writes:

“Hank Aaron went out of his way to make the lives of those around him better. Barry Bonds went out of his way to make the lives of those around him more difficult. He had a perverse way of rejoicing when others struggled.”

ExploreThe AJC's complete coverage on the life of Hank Aaron

And of the record-breaking night, he adds:

“Then, on Aug. 7, 2007, Bonds hit his 756th home run — a cartoonishly juiced man ‘making history’ even though history shrugged. I was there the night the mark was broken, and while the fans went crazy and Bonds family members engulfed him in hugs, it was akin to complimenting a person with gobs of plastic surgery how young she looks.”

While we mourn Mr. Aaron, it is unnecessary now to pile on Bonds any further. That serves no purpose other than to darken the celebration of this life. Still, it seems the right time to serve one reminder.

There is but one home run king, now and forever. And you may call him Hank or Henry or Mr. Aaron.