We think of him in that moment, that Monday night in April, NBC and Curt Gowdy on hand, Al Downing throwing, the bat whipping the ball high and deep, Bill Buckner attempting to scale the fence in left-center, the ball settling into Tom House’s glove in the bullpen, more than 50,000 people in the stands and millions more around the world having seen history of many sorts – sports history, sure, but also U.S. history and world history – been made. It remains the greatest moment in the annals of Atlanta sports. It’s on every 10-best list of significant sports moments.
April 8, 1974, 9:07 p.m. Eastern time: Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, eclipsing Babe Ruth’s longstanding record. That moment has now outlived its author; indeed, every obituary worldwide this weekend will refer to the moment in its first paragraph, if not its first sentence. It was the moment that changed the headline on Hank Aaron’s life, but the man himself was far more than any moment, even that gargantuan one. He wasn’t just a hitter of homers, a grown-up playing a kid’s game. He was a man who lived his life as if he knew one day he would have such a moment. By the time it arrived, he was more than ready for it.
He was a man of willpower, a man of grace. He was a Black man who grew up in the South. He faced slurs and discrimination growing up. He faced more slurs as he began to close in on the beloved Babe. He could have lashed back. He didn’t. He would remember the slurs all his life – how could he not? – but what we remember about Henry Louis Aaron is how he managed to rise above the insults, how he led life on his terms, how he, like Jackie Robinson before him, proved that there was more about a Black man than athletic grace. There also was an inner grace that made Aaron, again like Robinson, the absolute right man at the absolute right time.
Roger Maris’ hair began to fall out during the summer of ’61, the one when he chased Ruth’s other great record. Aaron’s pursuit of 715 was frazzled – lots of press, lots of hate mail, a whole offseason separating Nos. 713 and 714 – but the man whose greatest asset as a player was his matchless consistency didn’t allow the tumult around him to become a tumult within him. He was the guy who’d flown under the radar until deep into his career, playing not for the New York Yankees (like Mickey Mantle) or the ex-New York Giants (like Willie Mays). Aaron worked in Milwaukee and then Atlanta. His first graced the cover of Sports Illustrated on Aug. 16, 1969. He was 35, then in his 16th big-league season.
Wednesday, July 16, 1969: A 13-year-old who liked sports had made the trek up the Ohio River to watch the Reds at Crosley Field. The kid had brought a ball for players to sign. The gaggle of autograph-seekers began to disperse after the Reds took BP, so there were only a few left when the first Brave emerged. He was smoking a cigarette. The kid from Kentucky – and nobody else – recognized him. “Hey, Henry,” the kid said. “How about an autograph?” The man obliged and then moved on the field. The only autograph signed that night by one of the greatest players ever sits in a plastic case on a shelf 15 feet from where I’m typing.
Superstardom came late to Aaron, who made the All-Star team in each of his big-league seasons except the first and last. The world came to know him because of his home runs, but home runs weren’t really what made him a great player. He never hit more than 47 in a single season. He batted .301 at age 39. He never struck out 100 times in a year. And here’s the best Aaron stat: If you took away his 755 home runs, he’d still have had 3,016 hits.
I apologize. On the day Henry Aaron died, we shouldn’t be playing fun with numbers. (Although, you must admit, his make for great fun.) He was bigger than his biggest moment, more than his fattest number. His temperament and his surpassing skills made him the only man to take that historic swing. He left all those expressing vitriol because he happened to be Black looking the way such cretins deserve to look. He never gave in to the hatred, never lashed back. He kept on keeping on. He led a long full life.
To borrow the title from the autobiography he wrote with the late Lonnie Wheeler, he had a hammer. He was Hammerin’ Hank, great player, great Atlantan, great man. As we mourn his passing, we must also recognize the reality: We were, and we remain, ennobled by his life.