Saturday, January 23, 2021

Henry Aaron, 1934-2021


We’ve all seen the clip, of course. Milo Hamilton letting us know that he was “sitting on 714.” The aging slugger, the roaring crowd, the lefty on the mound standing athwart history. The fastball up, the big swing, the left fielder climbing the fence, the bullpen pitchers going wild.

The next thing you see is that Black man rounding second base, and as he does, young white men appear in the frame, chasing him, come not to bury but to praise him. In that moment, though, Aaron could not have known that. What he knew in that moment is that many, many white men had written to him, slurred him, threatened his family, threatened to take away his life for having the temerity to be both Black and great at the same time in America.

What’s a bad day for you at work? Too much to be done in too little time, perhaps, or feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Maybe someone else got the promotion, the bigger office, the bigger check. Maybe you made a mistake, measured once and cut twice, or thought it was “lefty loosey righty tighty” and now you’re shins deep in what is probably water but you can’t be sure. That’s a bad day. Maybe you got fired. That’s a very bad day.

Henry Aaron’s bad days had death threats. Hank Aaron’s bad days involved the FBI, and private security, and worrying whether someone was going to kill his kids. As it became clear, in 1973, that Aaron was going to set the all-time home-run record, the wave of hatred visited upon him grew. In the middle of all that, at 39 years old, with five children and soon a new wife, Aaron was the second-best player on his team, hitting 40 home runs.

I watch that clip, Aaron being chased by two young white men on a spring night in the South, white men who for all he knew wrote some of those letters, white men like the white men who had been chasing Black men in the South for a hundred years, not to pat their backs but to put them on their backs, not to celebrate their lives but to end them. Aaron couldn’t have known who these men were or what they wanted. He’d have been well within his rights to slug them, to curse them, to assume they were a threat to him.

Aaron accepted their congratulations, lightly shook them off, and continued toward third base, then on to home, and into the history books.

I wonder sometimes what Aaron’s life would have been like had the Braves never left Milwaukee. He and the ballclub both arrived there in 1954 1957, Aaron from A ball by way of the Negro American League and Mobile, Ala., the Braves by way of Boston. For a few years there they both had it good. Aaron won the NL MVP award in 1954, the Braves won the World Series in 1957. A few years later, though, the fans stopped coming, even to see one of the game’s true superstars, and in 1966 the Braves made their second move in 12 years, to Atlanta.

Aaron had 398 homers at that point, still putting up superstar seasons, well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Had the Brewers stuck around in Milwaukee, though, he’d have continued playing in a park that was poor-to-middling for a hitter, gone through Deadball II in the late 1960s there, maybe seen his numbers slide. Moving to a great hitter’s park in Atlanta, though, deemed the Launching Pad, helped him lead the NL in homers in 1966 and 1967, helped him come out of the low-offense era with 44 homers and a third-place MVP finish in 1969. In 1971 he hit 47 homers and again finished third in the MVP voting, moving to within 75 homers of Ruth’s 714. Aaron hit 241 home runs in his first six seasons in Atlanta, his age 32 through 37 seasons, an accomplishment only Ruth himself (296) had ever bested.

Maybe in Milwaukee, he has 25 or 30 fewer homers at this point, and projected to five or so fewer a year going forward. Maybe the team continues to trundle along, drawing poorly, the memories of 1957 and 1958 fading. Maybe it’s not as much fun to play baseball, and even the coming of the designated hitter rule isn’t much of an enticement. What if Aaron had caught Willie Mays with 661 homers in 1973 or 1974 and decided that was enough, retiring as one of the five or six best players ever, never challenging Ruth, never chasing a hallowed record as a Black man in the South? What if there had been no letters, no threats, no fear?

We honor Aaron for the strength he had to show, but no one should have to show the strength that he showed.

Aaron’s breaking the record and eventually retiring as the game’s home-run king warped his position in history as well. That clip, that swing, that trip around the’s what we remember. It overwhelms everything else. The image of a 39-year-old man with a 39-year-old body loping around the bases does Aaron an injustice. Had Aaron finished his career as a Milwaukee Brave, short of 700 homers, would other images come to mind more easily? The wristy pull power? The strong arm and excellent range in right field? That Aaron was once a 30/30 man before we cared about those numbers? Would we remember the man and the player more than we do one number, one home run?  Aaron was probably the second-best player who had ever lived when he retired, only his peer Mays on his level.

Henry Aaron is one of the best baseball players ever, and he endured more to be part of that group than any player ever did. May he rest in peace.