Baseball Has Lost a True Titan in Henry Aaron (1934-2021)

There are baseball stars, there are heroes and legends, and then there is Henry Aaron. The slugging right fielder is remembered mainly for surpassing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record on April 8, 1974, but even that crowning achievement obscures the all-around excellence and remarkable consistency he demonstrated during his 23-year major league career.

What’s more, Aaron’s accomplishments can most fully be appreciated only with an understanding of the racism he encountered throughout his life and his career, as a Black man who began his professional career in the Negro Leagues, who became a star before half of the teams in the National League had integrated and a champion before the last teams in the American League did so, who emerged as a force for civil rights while becoming the first Black star on the first major league team in the Deep South, who surpassed the most hallowed record produced by the game’s most famous player while facing a nearly unimaginable barrage of hate mail and death threats, and who broke down further barriers after his retirement, as one of the game’s first Black executives and as a critic of the lack of diversity among managers and executives.

More than a Hall of Famer, Aaron was a true titan, an American icon in his own right. Sadly, he is the latest Hall of Famer in an unrelenting stretch to pass away. News of his death was announced on Friday morning, four days after that of Don Sutton, 15 days after that of Tommy Lasorda, and 27 days after that of former teammate Phil Niekro. He was 86 years old, and had been in the news earlier this month as he received a COVID-19 vaccination.

“Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” said former president Barack Obama in a statement released on Friday. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush paid tributes in statements as well, as did President Joe Biden:

While Aaron’s story is often cast as that of a man overcoming or ignoring racism and hatred to achieve greatness with quiet dignity, it does the man a disservice to soften his edges and diminish the pain that he felt, and the scars that he bore — particularly given that he did not do so in silence. Surpassing Ruth “was supposed to be the greatest triumph of my life, but I was never allowed to enjoy it. I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” he once said. “The only reason that some people didn’t want me to succeed was because I was a Black man.”

Aaron spent the entirety of his major league career with two franchises, the Braves (1954-74) and Brewers (’75-76). He joined the Braves — who had followed the Dodgers and Giants as the third NL team to integrate with the arrival of outfielder Sam Jethroe in 1950 – in their second season after moving from Boston to Milwaukee, then followed them to Atlanta in 1966. After breaking Ruth’s record and making a rather unceremonious departure from the Braves, who wanted him to retire and accept a position in public relations, he returned to Milwaukee, which he regarded as home. He made All-Star teams every year but his rookie season and his final one, playing in a record 25 All-Star Games thanks to the twice-annual format in place from 1959-62. He helped the Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series. That same year, he won the NL MVP award; it was the third year of a 19-season stretch during which he received at least some mention on ballots. He won a trio of Gold Gloves in 1958-60, the first coming in the first season in which separate awards were given in each league.

“Hammerin’ Hank” hit .305/.374/.555 for his career, and led the NL in homers four times, with a high of 47 in 1971; four times, he hit exactly 44 home runs, matching his uniform number. He led in total bases eight times, in RBI and slugging percentage four times apiece, in OPS+ three times, and in batting average twice. His home run total of 755 was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007, though that accomplishment was at least somewhat overshadowed by Bonds’ connections to performance-enhancing drugs and ongoing legal troubles. Aaron remains the all-time leader in total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477), and RBI (2,297). He’s third in hits (3,771) behind only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb; tied with Ruth for fourth in runs scored (2,174) behind only Rickey Henderson, Cobb, and Bonds; and fifth among position players in the Baseball-Reference version of WAR (143.1) behind Bonds, Ruth, Willie Mays, and Cobb, adding significant value on the basepaths (+44 runs by B-Ref’s reckoning) and in the field (+98 runs). He’s second to Ruth among right fielders in JAWS. Statistically, he’s as inner-circle as Hall of Famers get.

For a man of such towering accomplishments, Aaron’s physical stature was relatively modest, a lean and lithe six feet and 180 pounds. His lightning-quick wrists, which allowed him to catch up to fastballs and wait to judge breaking balls, are often cited as the defining feature of his swing. As Aaron himself said, “I looked for the same pitch my whole career, a breaking ball. All of the time. I never worried about the fastball. They couldn’t throw it past me, none of them.”

Sentiments to the effect of “Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster” were variously attributed to teammate Joe Adcock, and pitchers Curt Simmons and Don Drysdale. Suffice to say that there was wide consensus on the matter. But beyond those legendary wrists, Aaron was a marvel of biomechanical efficiency. Via the Orlando Sentinel’s Bill Sones in 1986:

What Aaron did was hit for power and average with a “heresy” swing that seemed to bring his back foot off the ground at the moment of impact, while his top hand came off the bat, almost as if he were hitting homers one-handed. What Aaron was doing so right was getting his lower body strength and full body weight into the swing by thrusting his hip forward and pivoting on a firm front leg.

“Real batting power, we now know, comes from the large muscles of the lower body, with the arms, wrists and hands acting like a transmission system for this generated power,” says University of Kentucky movement expert Dr. Robert Shapiro.

Henry Louis Aaron — Hank to the baseball world, Henry to those who knew him — was born on February 5, 1934 in “Down the Bay,” a poor Black neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama. He was the third of eight children born to Herbert and Estella Aaron. Herbert made a living as a tavern owner and dry dock boilermaker’s assistant, but the family was too poor to afford baseball equipment. Instead, the young Aaron swung a broomstick at bottle caps, and made balls out of whatever he could find. When Aaron began playing in the sandlots, it was softball, which didn’t require a mitt. In 2014, Aaron told CNN’s Terence Moore that at times, his play was interrupted by his mother calling him inside as the Ku Klux Klan marched through the streets of Mobile.

“When I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama on a little dirt street, I remember my mother about 6 or 7 o’clock in the afternoon. You could hardly see and I’d be trying to throw a baseball and she’d say ‘Come here, come here!’ And I’d say, ‘For what?’ She said, ‘Get under the bed,'” Aaron said in a rare interview with CNN in 2014.

The family would hide under the bed for several minutes and then “the KKK would march by, burn a cross and go on about their business and then she (my mother) would say, ‘You can come out now.’ Can you imagine what this would do to the average person? Here I am, a little boy, not doing anything, just catching a baseball with a friend of mine and my mother telling me, ‘Go under the bed.'”

At age eight, Aaron began attending spring training games at Mobile’s Hartwell Field, where he sat in the segregated outfield bleachers and watched exhibitions featuring the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. He regularly listened to games of the Mobile Bears. Though the team was affiliated with the Dodgers, the Southern Association to which they belonged resisted integration, yet persisted until 1961.

When Aaron was 14, he cut high school class to hear Jackie Robinson speak at a corner drugstore, and then saw him play an exhibition at Hartwell with the Dodgers. It was a transformative experience, as he recalled to Lonnie Wheeler in his 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer:

That same day, I told my father I would be in the big leagues before Jackie retired. Jackie had that effect on all of us— he gave us our dreams. Before then, whenever I said I wanted to be a ball player, Daddy would set me straight. I remember sitting out on the back porch once when an airplane flew over, and I told Daddy I’d like to be a pilot when I grew up. He said, “Ain’t no colored pilots.” I said okay, then, I’ll be a ballplayer. He said, “Ain’t no colored ball players.” But he never said that anymore when we sat in the colored section of Hartwell Field and watched Jackie Robinson.”

Neither of the two high schools Aaron attended, the public Central High School nor the private Josephine Allen Institute, fielded baseball teams. By his junior year, Aaron was playing semiprofessionally, first for the Prichard Athletics for $2 a game, and then for the Mobile Black Bears for $3 a game. Around this time, he also attended a Brooklyn Dodgers tryout camp, but was told he was too small to play professionally. Playing in an exhibition game between the Bears and the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns, the 17-year-old Aaron impressed a local scout named Ed Scott who convinced the Clowns to sign him. He joined the team after graduating high school, making $200 a month while playing shortstop. At this stage of his career, he batted cross-handed, with his left hand above his right; even so, he excelled during his three-month stint with the Clowns. According to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Aaron batted a league-best .467.

While with the Clowns, Aaron was scouted by both the Giants and Braves. He received offers from both teams via telegram in June 1952. As he recalled years later, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates — fifty dollars.”

Braves scout Dewey Griggs, who signed Aaron, filed a scouting report that praised the 5-foot-9, 167-pound teenager’s hands, wrists, and potential but also dripped with racist generalities: “Negro ball players as a whole are front runners in my estimation. When ahead they look very good and very bad when behind. However this boy looks very good and if he can make the plays to his left and his right he could be the answer. I feel that he has the ability.”

The Braves paid the Clowns $10,000 to purchase Aaron’s contract, and he began his professional career at Class-C Eau Claire of the Northern League, correcting his cross-handed grip at Griggs’ recommendation and hitting .336 with a .493 slugging percentage and nine homers in 87 games, a strong showing for an 18 year old. Moving up to Class-A Jacksonville in 1953, he hit .362 and slugged .589 while collecting 208 hits, including 14 triples and 22 homers. He did all this as part of the South Atlantic League’s first integrated team. The region’s Jim Crow laws kept him and teammates Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner from staying with and dining with white teammates, and the trio endured racist taunts in Georgia towns such as Columbus and Macon. Nonetheless, the team was a powerhouse, winning the league championship as Aaron earned MVP honors. Aaron credited manager Ben Geraghty with doing his best to help his Black players, seeking out restaurants that would serve them, and stopping by their accommodations when they were on the road to drink beer and talk baseball. He called Geraghty, “the greatest manager I ever played for… I’ve never played for a guy who could get more out of every ballplayer than he could. He knew how to communicate with everybody and to treat every player as an individual.”

Aaron got additional help from another manager in the winter of 1953-54: Mickey Owen, he of the dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series. Owen managed Aaron while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He helped Aaron transition from second base to the outfield and tirelessly threw batting practice to teach him to use the whole field as a hitter. Aided by Bobby Thomson fracturing his ankle sliding into second base during spring training in 1954, the 20 year-old Aaron made the Braves out of camp. He debuted on Opening Day, April 13, by going 0-for-5 against the Reds while playing left field. He collected his first two hits in his second game, a double off the Cardinals’ Vic Raschi and then a single off Stu Miller, then tagged Raschi for his first home run on April 23 in St. Louis, with a shot off Miller two days later. Aaron hit a respectable .280/.322/.447 (104 OPS+) with 13 homers as a rookie before suffering a season-ending ankle fracture on September 5.

Aaron recovered from the injury, moved over to right field, and broke out in 1955, hitting .314/.366/.540 with a league-high 37 doubles, 27 homers, and 106 RBI. He made his first All-Star team, and while his 141 OPS+ and 6.2 WAR were both good enough to crack the NL’s top 10, the former would be the lowest mark he would post until 1974, the latter his lowest mark until 1970. He finished among the NL’s top 10 in OPS+ 18 times, and did so in WAR 16 times. From 1955-74, he would average 36 homers, a 161 OPS+ and 7.1 WAR.

Aaron won his first batting title in 1956, hitting .328/.365/.558 and topping the circuit in hits (200), doubles (34) and total bases (340); he was third in slugging percentage, OPS+ (151) and WAR (7.2). The Braves, who had the league’s stingiest pitching via a staff led by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and a robust lineup featuring Aaron, third baseman Eddie Mathews, and first baseman Joe Adcock, entered September in first place, but with a 14-13 finish ended up a game behind the Dodgers.

Next year would be their year. The 23-year-old Aaron led the NL in home runs (44) and RBI (132) for the first time, and in total bases again (369) while hitting .322/.378/.600 with 8.0 WAR. The team went 95-59, winning the pennant by eight games, and they outlasted the Yankees in a seven game World Series to win the franchise’s first championship since 1914. Aaron was practically unstoppable against the Yankees, hitting .393/.414/.786 with three homers, but two of them came in losses; Burdette, who went 3-0 with an 0.67 ERA, won MVP honors.

The two teams rematched in 1958 after another typically fine Aaron season and a 92-win campaign by the Braves. This time, Aaron went homerless and drove in just two runs, both in a Game 6 loss, though he did bat .333/.419/.407.

The Braves lost an agonizingly close race in 1959. On September 17, they had been two games behind the Giants and tied with the Dodgers with eight games to play. They won six out of eight, tying the Dodgers as the Giants faded, but lost the first two games of a best-of-three tiebreaker. Aaron, however, had his best season to date, hitting .355/.401/.636 with 39 homers and 123 RBI while winning his second batting title, leading in slugging percentage, total bases (400), and OPS+ (183), and placing second in WAR (8.6). For as strong as his season was, he finished third in the NL MVP voting behind Ernie Banks (45 homers and 10.2 WAR) and Mathews (46 homers and 8.2 WAR).

Aaron’s numbers slipped somewhat in 1960 (.292/.352/.566), though that’s a relative term, as he still hit 40 homers and led in RBI (126) and total bases (334). The Braves finished second for the fourth time in seven years, but it would be awhile before they contended again. From 1961-65, Aaron hit .323/.387/.575 (166 OPS+) while averaging 36 homers and 8.4 WAR; his best season with the bat in that span was 1963, when he led in slugging percentage (.583), homers (44 again), RBI (130), OPS+ (179), and total bases (370), and stole a career-high 31 bases in 36 attempts, making him just the third player to record a 30-homer, 30-steal season after Ken Williams (1922) and Mays (1956 and ’57). His 9.1 WAR ranked second to Mays; he’d led with 9.5 in 1961, aided by defense worth an estimated 23 runs above average.

In 1962, younger brother Tommie Aaron (1939-1984) joined the Braves as a backup first baseman and outfielder. Stardom was not in store for him, as he batted just .229/.292/.327 with 13 career homers in 1,046 PA over seven seasons with the Braves spread between 1962 and ’71. On July 12 of that year against the Cardinals, the Aarons became the first pair of brothers to hit a home run in the same inning since Paul and Lloyd Waner in 1932. What’s more, after Tommie’s ninth-inning solo pinch-homer off Larry Jackson trimmed the Cardinals’ lead to 6-4, Hank hit a walk-off grand slam off Lindy McDaniel.

Even as Aaron was excelling with remarkable consistency, the novelty of baseball was wearing off in Milwaukee as the team, which had led the NL in attendance in each of its first six seasons after moving from Boston, slipped into the middle of the standings and attendance rankings. Where they’d drawn 2.2 million in 1957, they drew half that in ’61, and didn’t make it above one million before leaving town after the 1965 season.

Aaron, who had already begun to find his voice in the burgeoning civil rights movement by campaigning for Senator John F Kennedy in Milwaukee during the 1960 Democratic primary election cycle, was more than ambivalent about the move. “I have lived in the South, and I don’t want to live there again,” he said at the time. “We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”

Yet Aaron soon realized he had a bigger part to play, as “someone who had a role to play to help other blacks like myself,” as he told WSB-TV. He admitted to feeling “a little ashamed of myself, because I was so far back in the sticks, in the woods, that I didn’t know what was going on.” He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young, both of whom encouraged him. “Young said Aaron’s work on the baseball field and being the face of baseball in the Deep South was a form of civil rights activism, showing that achievements can be made if the playing field were equal,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs. “He was like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in ’38 and Jackie breaking the color line in ’47,” said Young.

Wary of being labeled a troublemaker, and mindful of the way his words could be misinterpreted, Aaron’s political strategy “would always begin behind closed doors,” as Howard Bryant wrote in his 2010 biography, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. “Part of his reasoning was practical: Using the public for leverage could be embarrassing to the people he most wanted to cultivate… Making people look bad would tend to harden their stance and thus make achieving the ultimate goal more difficult.”

On the field, Aaron led the NL in home runs in each of his first two seasons in Atlanta, with 44 in 1966 (accompanied by a league-leading 127 RBI) and 39 in ’67 (with 344 total bases and a .573 SLG, both league highs). In the latter season, the Braves slipped to 77-85, seventh in the 10-team NL — their worst showing since 1952, their final season in Boston. They improved to .500 the next year; Aaron’s .287/.354/.498 (153 OPS+) in the “Year of the Pitcher” was the only season during the 1955-73 stretch that he slugged below .500.

On July 14, 1968, Aaron homered off the Giants’ Mike McCormick, becoming the eighth player to reach 500 home runs for his career, and the fourth to do so in a three-year span after Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Mathews, the last of whom who had joined the club exactly one year earlier in the final year of his Hall of Fame career. As Aaron started to feel his age (35) the following spring, Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen reminded him that the 3,000-hit milestone was in sight. “To somebody like me — having come along in a period when black players were only beginning to assume their rightful place in baseball — the chance to make history sounded like something to pursue with all of my resources,” Aaron told Wheeler.

Aaron would get a bit of help in that department. The 1969 season marked the first in which the power alleys of Atlanta Stadium — later known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and nicknamed “The Launching Pad” — were shortened from 385 feet to 375, which made it more conducive to home runs than it had been previously. Already it had the advantages of shorter fences than Milwaukee’s County Stadium (six feet versus eight to 10 feet), hotter weather, and a higher elevation (a major league-high 1,057 feet above sea level), all of which which helped to offset the shorter foul lines and power alleys of Milwaukee. In his 13 years as a Milwaukee Brave, Aaron hit 185 homers at home, and 213 on the road, whereas in his nine years in Atlanta, he hit 192 homers at home and 145 on the road.

Anyway, in 1969 Aaron again hit 44 homers to go with a .607 SLG and 177 OPS+ (yawn), and in the process overtook Mel Ott, Mathews, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and Mantle on the all-tie home run list, moving him into third behind only Mays (who finished 1969 with an even 600 to Aaron’s 554) and Ruth. With expansion adding the Expos and Padres to the NL and the Pilots and Royals to the AL, each league split into two divisions; improbably, the Braves were placed in the NL West due to the league’s internal politics, but owner Bill Bartholomay viewed the glass as half-full with more money at the gate for games against the Dodgers and Giants. The Braves took to the new format, going 93-69 and winning the West thanks in part to big offensive seasons from Aaron and Rico Carty, and the arrival of Orlando Cepeda from the Cardinals, not to mention the emergence of Niekro as staff ace. Though Aaron homered in all three of the Braves’ games against the Mets in the inaugural best-of-five National League Championship Series, his team was swept. Alas, that would be the last time he played in a postseason game.

The Braves slipped below .500 in three of the next four seasons, with an 82-80 record and third-place finish in the NL West their high-water mark. Aaron hit 38 homers in 1970, and on May 17 collected the 3,000th hit of his career, off the Reds’ Wayne Simpson; with that, he became the ninth player to reach 3,000 and the first to do so while also reaching 500 home runs; Mays would join the club two months later.

Aaron hit a career-high 47 home runs in ’71, including number 600 off the Giants’ Gaylord Perry on April 27. By the end of the season, he had 639 to Mays’ 646; at that point, the Say Hey Kid was 40 and in the midst of his last double-digit season.

By this point, Aaron was getting a flood of mail, more than anyone who wasn’t a politician, and so much that his 1972 contract allowed for a full-time secretary, Carla Koplin, who gave Aaron cards and letters to autograph and reported threats to the FBI, of which there were many. “I have a contract out on you. Over 700, and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell,” read one death threat. Another read, “Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. I will be going to the rest of your games and if you hit one more home run it will be your last. My gun is watching your every Black move.” Even some of the ones that didn’t directly threaten his safety were vile and full of racist epithets, such as the one that began, “Dear Mr. N*****,” and was signed “KKK (Forever).”

“I always felt like once I put the uniform on and once I got out onto the playing field, I could separate the two from say an evil letter I got the day before or even 20 minutes before, that I could also concentrate on what I had to do as far as trying to watch a fastball, if somebody’s throwing a ball at 90 miles an hour, rather than worrying about a letter that somebody sent” Aaron told CNN in 2014.

Even so, Aaron took the threats seriously, began traveling with a personal bodyguard, and registered in hotels under aliases. His daughter received police protection at college. As he told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale in 2014, he collected the hate mail “to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed… The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Aaron hit 34 homers in 1972, surpassing the still-active Mays along the way to move into second behind Ruth. He played in just 129 games; physically and mentally, he needed rest, even having transitioned to regular first base duty as of the previous season. He added another 40 homers in just 120 games in 1973, pushing him to 713, one shy of Ruth’s mark; he hit number 700 off the Phillies’ Ken Brett on July 21, 1973. His 1974 Topps card, number 1 in the set (a treasure this scribe later received as a hand-me-down from an older cousin), preemptively hailed him as the “New All-Time Home Run King.”

But what should have been a build up towards an immense celebration took on a much darker edge. Aaron received 900,000 pieces of mail in 1973 according to the U.S. Post Office, a third of which was hate mail. He spent the winter of 1973-74 worried that he might be assassinated before Opening Day. The Atlanta Journal went so far as to pre-write an obituary.

“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” Aaron told Wheeler for I Had a Hammer. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”

With the Braves set to open the 1974 season in Cincinnati on April 4, the team planned to hold him out of the games so that he could tie and set the record at home, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn interceded, telling the Braves that he expected Aaron to play at least two of the series’ three games on the grounds that the team should be making an honest effort to win. Meanwhile, Aaron asked the Reds’ front office if they would set aside a moment of silence in observance of the sixth anniversary if Dr. King’s assassination; he was told no, that would be too political. “If nothing else, though, I got the message across that we should be more concerned with Dr. King’s legacy and less with Babe Ruth’s,” he told Wheeler.

In Aaron’s first plate appearance of the season, he turned on a 3-1 sinker from Jack Billingham and hit it over the left-centerfield fence for a three-run homer and a tie with the Babe. “I still had one more home run to go to set the record, but for the first time in several long years, I wasn’t chasing anybody. It was like I had landed on the moon. I was there. All I had to do now was take the next step,” recalled Aaron. He sat the team’s next game on April 6, went 0-for-3 the next day, and returned to Atlanta, where the Braves held Hank Aaron Night, and drew a stadium record 53,775 fans. His father threw out out the ceremonial first pitch.

Facing the Dodgers’ Al Downing, Aaron walked in his first plate appearance, and then made history in his second, when Downing left a 1-0 fastball up and over the plate. Aaron didn’t think he hit it hard enough to go out, and neither did Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner, but it did; Braves reliever Tom House caught it in the Atlanta bullpen, and bedlam ensued. After Aaron rounded second, two fans ran out of the stands and onto the field to congratulate him; in the stands, bodyguard Calvin Wardlaw, who carried a .38 to protect Aaron, was instead wrapped in the embrace of the slugger’s wife, Billye. His parents were part of the mob that greeted him at home plate, as was Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia. Conspicuously, Kuhn was not in attendance, a slight Aaron never forgot.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” said Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, after about 30 seconds of silence following the home run. “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

It should have been a marvelous moment for Aaron, but as he told the New York Times‘ William C. Rhoden in 1994, it brought him considerable pain:

“April 8, 1974, really led to me turning off baseball. It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these thing have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

Though he still swung a potent bat (.268/.341/.491, 128 OPS+), Aaron played only 112 games and hit just 20 homers in 1974. The Braves wanted him to retire and take a front office job in public relations for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his salary. Aaron refused, disappointed that Bartholomay had bypassed him as a managerial candidate when Mathews was fired in July. “I make $1 million from (television manufacturer) Magnavox and I don’t need any more public relations,” he told The Sporting News‘ Lou Chapman. Before the season’s final game, he told reporters, “I may play again, but tonight will be my last game in the Braves’ uniform.” He homered off the Reds’ Rawly Eastwick in his final plate appearance as a Brave, number 733 for his career.

On November 2, while Aaron was in Tokyo to participate in a home run derby against Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh, he was traded to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and a player to be named later, a move he had given the Braves permission to pursue. “When Bud Selig called me,” he told the New York Times, “I was too sleepy to get all the details… All I know is that I’m happy to be going back home.”

Aaron added another 22 homers in his two years as a Brewer, during which he served primarily as a designated hitter. Though his skills had diminished, he helped the Brewers set a club record for attendance. He surpassed Ruth with his record 2,210th RBI on May 1, 1975 and made one final All-Star appearance on July 15, when the game was conveniently held at County Stadium.

Upon retiring, Aaron rejoined the Braves — who had changed owners in early 1976, with Ted Turner buying the team — as a vice president and director of player development, a job he held for 13 years. During that time, he oversaw the development of many of the Braves’ players who would fuel the team’s 1982 NL West title, including two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy.

In 1982, Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame alongside fellow trailblazing slugger Frank Robinson. Aaron received 97.8% of the vote, meaning that nine of the 415 writers somehow found reasons to leave him off their ballots. For as ridiculous as that was, his share of the vote was the highest since Cobb’s 98.2% in 1936, even higher than Mays’ 94.7% in ’79.

Over time, Aaron grew increasingly frustrated at the dearth of Black executives in baseball. In fact, he was the only one circa April 1987, when Dodgers’ GM Al Campanis created a firestorm on ABV-TV’s Nightline for saying that Black people “may not have some of the necessities” to be field manager or general manager, comments that led to his firing. “I’ve been hoping that things would change for the last 10 years,” said Aaron. “But I don’t see any signs of hope because you still have people like Campanis with his beliefs.”

In 1989, Aaron became a senior vice president of the Braves, a position he held until his death. In 1994, he and wife Billye established the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation to help underprivileged children pursue advanced study in music, art, writing, dance, and sports. At the 1999 World Series, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his surpassing Ruth, Commissioner Selig introduced the Hank Aaron Award, presented annually to honor the best hitters in the National and American leagues. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

As Barry Bonds approached Aaron’s career home run total, a backlash emerged over the extent to which his achievement was aided by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Sports Illustrated put Aaron on the cover of its July 23, 2007 issue — three weeks before it used a shot of Bonds hitting number 755 in the same capacity — to promote a Tom Verducci feature on “The People’s King.” Privately, Aaron was “personally and permanently offended by Barry Bonds,” according to Bryant, and spurned overtures to join Mays (Bonds’ godfather) in a series of celebrations for his milestone homers passing Mays, Ruth, and Aaron. He kept his distance from Bonds, but did pre-record a congratulatory video message to play on the scoreboard when the inevitable happened on August 7, 2007: “I move over 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.”

In an interview with the Today show last February, Aaron said that he did consider Bonds the home run king. “I knew Barry’s father very well, and I got to know Barry a little bit,” Aaron told interviewer Craig Melvin. “It’s kind of hard for me to digest and come to realize that Barry cheated in home runs, cheated in this and that.” Later, he added, “We’ve had so many cheaters that have made the Hall of Fame… Now I don’t see any reason why Barry or any of the rest of them shouldn’t make it.”

In regarding Bonds, just as in the rest of his nearly 87-year life, Aaron defied simplicity. Like Jackie Robinson, from whom he took the baton in his valiant battle to confront racism and injustice inside and outside of baseball, his story should not be reduced to a feel-good tale. Only by grappling with the whole of his life can we appreciate his true power and heroism.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I loved Hank Aaron. I’m thankful for all that he did, and the memories he created. A man of immense talents, charisma, and kindness. My own connections to him are fleeting, but he’s going to be an icon to me forever.