Barry Bonds is set to break one of the marquee records in sports as he closes in on Hank Aaron’s mark of 755 homeruns. Despite his arrogance, steroid allegations, and “all about me” attitude Bond’s rightfully deserves his due-but so does Hank Aaron. Aaron quietly had one of the best careers of anyone who ever played the game. Not until recent years has Aaron begun to receive the acclaim he’s richly due.
In 1974 Aaron broke arguably the most sacred record in baseball held by icon Babe Ruth. Babe hit 714 homeruns during his Hall of Fame career. Known as the “Sultan of Swat,” Ruth was the marquee athlete during what’s referred to as Golden Age of Sports in the 1920’s. Ruth’s personality, homerun power, off the field exploits, and swagger induced admiration from fans from all walks of life.
Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama February 5, 1934. Aaron grew up poor. He lived in a home built with scrap materials by his father. The house wasn’t equipped with inside plumbing or electricity. Aaron’s family was subject to segregation and overt racism in Jim Crow country.
Inspired by Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues, Aaron set his sights on being a professional ballplayer. In 1947, at age 13 he began working on his game with a fierce purpose. Aaron would later quit high school as he committed himself to mastering his chosen craft.
In 1952 Aaron played briefly for Indianapolis Clowns before being sold to Milwaukee Brave organization for ten thousand dollars. In April of 1953 Aaron was one of five African Americans in the minors who played in the first integrated game in the South Atlantic League. Playing second base for Jacksonville Braves, Aaron hit a homerun in his first at bat. As the ball cleared the fence white fans began throwing rocks at Aaron resulting in the game being stopped. Aaron, reflecting on the situation said, “The fans were just about like the players were. They just didn’t care for you being around.”
Despite consistent bouts with racism Aaron batted .362 with 125 runs batted in. In 1954 Aaron’s dream was realized as the Milwaukee Braves called him up to the majors. In 1957 Aaron won his first and only Most Valuable Player Award while hitting 44 homeruns: the Braves went on to win the American League Pennant and beat the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series in seven games. Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves until the team relocated to Atlanta in 1966.
Aaron was smashing home runs with such ease that his accomplishments went largely unnoticed. By 1970 he eclipsed 600 putting Babe Ruth’s mark in sight. Aaron ended the 1973 season with 713 homeruns-just one bomb shy of tying Ruth.
As Aaron embarked upon eclipsing Ruth he was with one of the must ruthless onslaughts of racism endured by an athlete-all because he was to break the record of a white legend. Aaron received consistent death threats and was often told he’d be shot dead on the field of play if he broke Ruth’s record. Aaron needed a personal secretary to sort the pounds of hate mail he received. The season prior to breaking Ruth’s record Aaron got more than 3,000 letters a day-more than any American outside of politics.
Aaron needed FBI security and a private bodyguard to help ensure his safety. In an interview with ESPN several years ago Commissioner Bud Selig said, “I saw a lot of the mail and it was heartbreaking-just horrifying.”
A sampling, "Dear Nigger Henry,You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. ... Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. . My gun is watching your every black move."
April 4, 1974 was an opening day to the Major League season filled with anticipation and irony. The date marked the sixth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The venue, Riverfront Stadium, was where Jackie Robinson made his last public appearance on a baseball field in 1972. Aaron used the occasion to hit his 714th homerun tying the Ruth for the career lead. Four days later in front of a sell out crowd in Fulton County Stadium Aaron eclipsed Ruth and lived to talk about it.
Most are aware of Aaron’s homeruns, but many are unaware how great a player he was. He won three batting titles and had a career batting average of .305. Aaron collected 3771 hits (3rd all-time) and was named to 24 all-star teams and won three gold gloves. Aaron is first all-time in total bases, extra base hits, and runs batted in. He was the first man to amass 3000 hits and 500 homeruns. Also, for a record 17 consecutive years during his career he collected at least 150 hits. Because he made the game look easy; wasn’t seeking the limelight like stars today; and played for small market teams; his accomplishments as a player have flown under the radar.
When Barry Bonds hits number 756 it should be about him. Bonds will go down as one of the greatest players of all time-but because of his rocky relationship with the media, alleged steroid use, and arrogance his record will be somewhat tarnished.
Aaron’s legacy is in tact: he played with class, endured bitter cruelties during his illustrious career, and is well respected amongst his baseball peers. Yes, Bonds will ultimately own the homerun crown but in my opinion Hank Aaron remains in a league of his own.