Remembering Hank Aaron: The greatness on the field, and the ugliness he faced off it

Henry “Hank” Aaron, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, passed away Friday morning at the age of 86. 

We’re going to do what we always do whenever someone we revere dies. We’re going to speak about how they were a nice person. We’re going to share stories about how they made us feel. We are going to humanize them in a way that further exemplifies why they were the best of us.

Aaron is being afforded that humanity as the icon rests easy. To know that it was not always that way is the most crushing part about the fact he died Friday.

Many of us never saw Aaron hit a home run in person. But we did not need to see that to fully appreciate and understand his legacy. 

Aaron was a Black man in the deep south. His only way out was baseball. He not only made it out, he made it to the top. But the journey there was far from pretty.

Aaron played during some of America’s darkest days, Jim Crow era. Aaron would be confronted head on by the pure ugliness of America when he closed in on America’s icon Babe Ruth’s record of 714 homers.

There are no words strong enough to describe just how much Henry “Hank” Aaron hated chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Aaron was vilified for simply being extraordinary at his career. He received death threats throughout his career, but they reached new heights. 

As the chase to 714 closed in, Aaron and his family received daily death threats. HIs daughters had to have an FBI detail with them as they attended school. Aaron would be met by bigots waiting outside the stadiums after games, heckling and threatening him. 

“It was terrible,” he would say. “It was the worst time of my life. I couldn’t leave the ballpark without an escort. I had to eat my dinners in the hotel room. My kids had to be escorted to school.

“I would look around and say to myself, ‘What are you doing wrong? What are you doing but just bringing a little enjoyment to people around the country who are asking, Did he hit a home run today? Didn’t he? Did he hit a home run? I’ll bet he’ll hit a home run tomorrow.’ Things like that. What was I doing except playing baseball and trying to bring a little happiness to people?”

The hate-filled letters were the worst part. They came one after another after another after another, and he read them all. He felt like he had to read them all.

“They hurt me. And they made me sad,” Aaron said about the letters. “But I had to know what I was up against.”

These bigots actions were to do one thing and one thing only: to discourage Aaron.

To make him shy away from the stage. To strike fear in his heart via pure hatred, the kind that white Americans have been using for centuries.

But Aaron wouldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. 

He stayed. He broke all the records — the home run record, the RBI record, the total bases record. 

Nobody ever played the game so well, so consistently, so long.

Fifteen times he hit 30 or more home runs. Fifteen times he scored 100 runs. Fifteen times he collected 300 total bases. Eleven times he drove in 100 RBIs.

Aaron was like the waves crashing the shore, he was going to be there everyday, doing the same thing. Over and over, season after season. And his consistency lands him as arguably the greatest to ever do it, certainly the most gracious.

His entire career should have been pure joy.

By all accounts Aaron was loved by everyone who knew him. You can’t find a person to go on record to say a bad word about a man who lived 86 years. 

Mainly because he had to be perfect. He had to do everything right with the idea that for some, he’d still be in the wrong.

He couldn’t act like Mickey Mantle, getting drunk and sleeping with every woman in town after each game. Aaron’s commitment toward the game along with their professionalism would have come under question. He could not be off his game for a second. Never could let his guard down. Aaron had to be perfect both on and off the field, or his career, hell his life could be at risk.

So yes, we celebrate the records and winning, but it was his dignity that made him so inspiring.

He was a beacon of light, one that shined through racism and hatred, to come out on the other side as one of the greatest American’s to ever live. 

For all he endured, alone for the most part, it is important we recognize the darkness while we celebrate the light of his life.

His legacy will go beyond the record books, beyond his iconic swing, beyond his play on the field. 

Here is how Aaron wants to be remembered. 

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