The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on the legacy of Hank Aaron:
Back before it was possible to access any bit of baseball trivia on one’s iPhone, the Baseball Encyclopedia was an essential part of a stats geek’s library. Turn to the player register, and it was possible to see the complete big-league statistics of anyone who ever played. How fitting that the very first name in the register was Henry Louis Aaron. Talk about leading with your best stuff.
Hank Aaron, who passed away last week at the age of 86, is no longer the all-time major-league home run leader on paper, having lost that distinction to Barry Bonds, who hit many of his homers amid the long-ball onslaught of the steroid era. In the hearts of many baseball fans, though, Aaron is the champ and always will be.
He batted in more runs than anyone in baseball history, a more accurate measure of a player’s worth than home runs. Maybe his most remarkable statistic is one that often gets overlooked. He accumulated more total bases (one base for a single, two for a double, etc.) than anyone else — not by a mile, but by more than 12 miles.
Aaron’s place in history, though, goes far beyond that.
In April of 1974, playing for the Atlanta Braves, he tied and then broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. The news media attention was intense, building up over the winter after Aaron hit No. 713 at the end of the 1973 season. It should have been cause for celebration, a moment as full of joy as the night 21 years later when Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.
Leading up to the milestone, though, Aaron got so much hate mail, including death threats, that he looked back on that year as a bittersweet time, at best. He needed police escorts and had to slip in and out of ballparks. … Some of the animosity came from New York Yankees fans who didn’t want to see the Babe’s record fall to anyone, but the contents of the letters told a painful truth: Many did not want a Black man to break one of sport’s most cherished records.
“They carved a piece of my heart away,” Aaron said 20 years later in an New York Times interview. He said he kept many of those letters, to remind himself and others of a darker time. Aaron was no firebrand. His “Hammerin’ Hank” nickname notwithstanding, his lifestyle and his playing style were low-key. Bobby Bragan, who managed the then-Milwaukee Braves in the mid 1960s, said of Aaron, “If you need a base, he’ll steal it quietly. If you need a shoestring catch, he’ll make it, and his hat won’t fly off and he won’t fall on his butt.” He seemed an unlikely candidate for death threats, only making noise with his bat and glove. He came from humble beginnings in Mobile, Ala., starting his pro career as a teenager in the Negro Leagues. But his talent was impossible to hide.
By the age of 20, in 1954, he was a starting outfielder for the Milwaukee Braves. His home runs came relatively quietly over the years. He never hit more than 47 in a season, but he was steady, gradually chipping away at the Babe’s record, outlasting other diamond stars who got more attention from the news media and the fans.
He got 97.8 percent of the vote the first year he was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, causing many to wonder what motivated the other 2.2 percent.
In interviews later in his life, Aaron seemed to express more sorrow than anger at the venom that accompanied his greatest achievement. It is hoped that some who cursed him nearly half a century ago can look back now and see the greatness to which they were blinded at the time.