I thought back to that schoolyard argument when I heard the news of Aaron’s death Friday morning at 86 years old. I would think about it each time I saw Aaron at Braves games, spring training or events. It increased my reverence of Aaron to know that he succeeded when some wanted him to fail just because he’s Black.
“I lost a hero,” said ex-Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, who was 7 years old when Aaron broke Ruth’s record. “As a Black boy growing up loving the game of baseball, Hank Aaron was ‘That Guy.’”
Aaron made his MLB debut in 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson became the first Black player of the modern MLB era. By then several other Black ballplayers had reached the majors, including Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and Larry Doby. All are members of the Hall of Fame, but none held a record as revered as the home run mark.
As Aaron closed in on the record, he faced a racist backlash that included death threats. Dusty Baker, Aaron’s Braves teammate, said in a 2007 interview with NPR that Aaron didn’t talk much to his teammates about the abuse. But Aaron once warned Baker and outfielder Ralph Garr about sitting next to him in the dugout during a game because someone was going to shoot at him.
“It wasn’t a very happy time,” Baker said. “It wasn’t nearly as happy as it should’ve been.”
Lewis Grizzard was editor of the Atlanta Journal when Aaron chased Ruth’s record. He wrote about the racist reactions in his book, “If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground.”
“The more we wrote about Aaron’s challenge, the more phone calls we got calling us ‘(racial slur) lovers,’” Grizzard wrote. “The callers all wanted to point out that Aaron might ... break the record, but that he had more at-bats than Ruth.”
Those callers were singing the same tune as my old schoolmate. When Black people achieve greatness, some find a reason to diminish it.
In a 2014 interview with USA Today, Aaron said he still kept the racist letters sent to him when he was close to the home run mark. He said he did so to “remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record.”
“A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go,” Aaron told the newspaper. “There’s not a whole lot that has changed. ... Sure, this country has a Black president, but when you look at a Black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go. The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
USA Today reported that the Braves were “besieged by hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls deriding Aaron” for his comments. In 1974 Aaron was the target of hatred because he was a Black man with the audacity to break Ruth’s record. In 2014 it was because had the nerve to speak out in defense of the Black president.
Aaron cited Jackie Robinson as his inspiration. In a contribution to a 1999 Time magazine special section on Robinson, Aaron wrote that he was in awe of Robinson when the ballplayer came to his hometown of Mobile when Aaron was 14 years old. Robinson “changed my life” by breaking baseball’s color barrier, Aaron wrote, and was the only person who was truly “bigger than life.”
Robinson and Aaron were great ballplayers who carried the twin burdens. They were targets of abuse and discrimination and also expected to use their fame to advocate for the human rights of Black people.
“To be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that I didn’t do possibly as much as I could have done,” Aaron said at the 2018 “Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards” hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. “But (Andrew Young) told me, ‘Don’t feel that (way) because what you were doing on your end was much (bigger) than what we were doing on our end.’ So he makes me feel a little better.”
Baseball legend Hank Aaron died at the age of 86. Here he talks with the AJC about his legacy in a 2014 interview.
Aaron said then that he supported athletes speaking out against social injustice. At the time, players from several championship teams had declined the traditional visit to the White House because of Donald Trump’s bigoted words and actions. Aaron said he understood their stance and that he probably also would decline to go, adding “there’s nobody there I want to see.”
Aaron angered racists in 1974 because they didn’t want a Black man to break Ruth’s record. Doing so helped Aaron make a case as the greatest ballplayer of all time. His 143.1 b-WAR ranks seventh of all time, but I put unofficial asterisks next to the numbers of nearly all the players listed above Aaron.
Ruth’s 182.5 WAR is best by a wide margin. But Ruth and other greats excelled during an era when not all the best ballplayers were in the majors because Black players were barred (a small number of Latinos played before Robinson). The rules protected Ruth from truly open competition, a fact that’s hardly mentioned when Ruth is declared the greatest ballplayer ever.
Barry Bonds is No. 4 in career WAR, the highest among players who played post-integration. He broke Aaron’s home run record in 2007 and finished with 762, a record that stands. The argument against Bonds as best of all time is the same one that’s kept him out of the Hall of Fame: his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Aaron didn’t dispute Bonds’ record. He congratulated Bonds in a video message played in the stadium after he hit No. 756. But Aaron once said that if Bonds and other confirmed PED users from the steroids era were admitted to the Hall, it should be with an asterisk next to their names.
Exclude pre-integration players, and Bonds and Mays (156.2) is the career WAR leader with Aaron just behind. Mays was the superior outfielder. Aaron had more hits (3,771 vs. 3,283). He’s still the career leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856).
Aaron is a hero to many Americans, especially Black people. He’s among the best ballplayers who ever lived and supplanted Babe Ruth as Home Run King. There’s nothing my old classmate or anyone else can do to change that.