Hammerin’ Hank Aaron Is Still the Home Run King to Me
The greatest is gone.
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger whose 755 career home runs long stood as baseball’s golden mark, has died. He was 86.
“Our family is heartbroken to hear the news of Hank Aaron’s passing,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement on behalf of the Aaron family. “Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia’s greatest legends. His life and career made history, and his influence was felt not only in the world of sports, but far beyond — through his important work to advance civil rights and create a more equal, just society. We ask all Georgians to join us in praying for his fans, family, and loved ones as we remember Hammerin’ Hank’s incredible legacy.”
The Atlanta Braves said in a release that Aaron died peacefully in his sleep.
As many readers here know, baseball is my thing. One of the clearest baseball memories I have from my youth is watching Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record in the spring of 1974. He did it against my beloved Dodgers and I didn’t care. It was one of those moments. Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully was calling the game and he captured the moment with his typical brilliance.
“There’s a high drive into deep left-center field,” Scully bellowed. “Bucker goes back to the fence — and it is gone.”
Scully remained silent for nearly 30 seconds as Aaron rounded the bases. Finally, the announcer piped up again.
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said, well aware of the cultural significance. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
To a lot of old school baseball fans like me, it’s Aaron, not the ‘roided up Barry Bonds, who is still the real Major League Baseball home run king.
Hammerin’ Hank faced a lot of hate on his way to the record. Babe Ruth has always been more revered than most baseball legends. Roger Maris was constantly disparaged when he was chasing Ruth’s single season home run record simply because he was doing it over a span of more games. Aaron was a black man going after the record most baseball fans thought was untouchable and, as Scully noted, he was primarily doing it in the Deep South.
Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.
“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”
Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.
I remember a story Scully told about Aaron during some down time in a Dodgers game I was watching about fifteen years ago. Aaron played when pitchers could repeatedly throw at hitters to knock them off the plate and not get warned or tossed out of games. Scully said he remembered Dodgers great Don Drysdale always trying to knock Aaron down. He’d do it two or three times and then be forced to throw something over the plate, and Aaron would often hit that one out of the park. Drysdale was on his way to the MLB Hall of Fame and would finish with a phenomenal lifetime earned run average of 2.95 but Aaron took him deep seventeen times in his career.
This has been a rough month for baseball fans. Aaron’s death follows the deaths of fellow Hall of Fame members (and Dodger greats) Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton.
I count myself fortunate that I got to grow up watching Aaron chase and break Ruth’s record. He wasn’t just an otherworldly athlete, he redefined gentlemanly class.
RIP Hammerin’ Hank. There will never be another like you.
Here’s that famous home run:
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PJ Media Senior Columnist and Associate Editor Stephen Kruiser is the author of “Don’t Let the Hippies Shower” and “Straight Outta Feelings: Political Zen in the Age of Outrage,” both of which address serious subjects in a humorous way. Monday through Friday he edits PJ Media’s “Morning Briefing.” His columns appear twice a week.