Eli Fishman, Sports Editor
The impact that the late Hank Aaron had on the game of baseball as well as American culture cannot be overstated. For 33 years, Aaron held American sports’ “most prized record” as the home run champion, surpassing the legendary Babe Ruth, whose record stood for 40 years prior.
In his 23-year MLB career ranging from 1954 to 1976, Aaron was a league All-Star for 21 consecutive seasons, a record that still stands. He finished his career with 3,771 hits (third all time) and 755 home runs (second all time). He was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982 with a record number of votes, and in 2001 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He is a baseball legend, and guaranteed a spot on the Mount Rushmore of America’s pastime. In spite of his impressive accomplishments, when one thinks of the greatest athletes in American history such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, Aaron’s name is one that rarely comes up in conversation. There is no single reason why, but a number of factors contribute to his omission from the ‘greatest of all time’ (GOAT) conversation.
Race undoubtedly played a role. Aaron grew up as an impoverished child in the deep south of Mobile, Ala., in the heart of the Jim Crow era. He would later recall times when he’d hide under his bed from the Ku Klux-Klan. At the onset of his professional career, he was relegated to the all black Negro Leagues, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns. He made it to the big leagues in 1954, only seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. In spite of his success, Aaron remained the subject of hateful venom. Even years later, at the height of his career, Aaron received upwards of 3,000 letters of hate mail and death threats daily.
Aaron also lacked the star qualities that turned other players into celebrities. Standing six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, he was not much of a physical presence. He was not flashy, known more for his faith and dedication to his family.
Spending his career with small market teams, first with Milwaukee then Atlanta, a lack of spotlight and playoff appearances on his resume was a deficit to his stature. Baseball fan Tyler Stephen, ‘22, observed that “if Hank Aaron played in a city like New York, he definitely would have been more recognized for his career as he would have been in the spotlight more as compared to playing in Atlanta and Milwaukee.”
Throughout his career, Aaron was known as a consistent, talented and hard working player, but it wasn’t until his record achievements began to mount that he gained a degree of national attention. His visibility and overdue celebrity status came only when the threat to Babe Ruth’s home run record, the holy grail of baseball achievements, became a possibility. As he came closer to that 715th homer, Aaron finally began to receive his due. On April 8, 1974, he gained worldwide fame when he became the all time leader in home runs.
“He faced racism and threats from fans, all hoping he would fail, yet through it all he came out on top as the home run champion,” Stephen added.
In his post-playing career, Aaron helped break barriers as one of the first black executives in not only baseball, but all of sports, eventually becoming the Senior Vice President of the Atlanta Braves. In more recent years, Aaron worked to diversify youth baseball and give underprivileged kids the opportunity to play the sport.
Henry “Hammerin´ Hank” Aaron died on Jan. 22, 2021, but will never be forgotten.
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