The term “The Greatest” is used very loosely today, but I would guess it would depend on the generation one was born (time). Henry Aaron is the greatest player of my generation. His great swing took him from a poverty-stricken section of Mobile Alabama, to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He died on Thursday January 19, 2021. He was 86.
I was blessed as a sports media personality to have broken bread and interviewed some of the greatest sports personalities of my generation. There were Muhammad (Boxing), Bert R. Sugar (Boxing), Red Auerbach (NBA), Wilt Chamberlain (NBA), Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines (College basketball), Jim Brown (NFL) and Hank Aaron (MLB) and a cast of hundreds.
I was not surprised Hank’s last heroic act was for his community. He was first among the Atlanta personalities to get vaccinated against Covid 19 at the new Morehouse School of Medicine, January 5, 2021. He was hoping to send a message to Black America that the shots were safe. He said, “It makes me feel wonderful. I don’t have any qualms about it at all. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this, you know. Its just a small thing that can help zillions of people in the country. Vaccine experts are saying his death had nothing to do with the vaccine.
Hank’s greatness never let him forget his humble beginnings growing up in Mobile, Alabama. He went from picking cotton as a child to hitting homeruns out of Major League ball parks around the country.
Racism showed its ugly head at every stop, there were tough times in the Negro Leagues and more disguised and subtle racism in Milwaukee and Atlanta. The racist bigots that Jackie Robinson faced in 1947 were still there when Hank arrived in Indianapolis to play with the Clowns’ organization of the Negro leagues in 1951. He was 17 years old. There was no relief in Jacksonville in 1953 when the Braves promoted him to their class A affiliate, the Jacksonville Braves. He led the league in almost everything accept home runs, runs scored (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBIs (125), total bases (338) and batting average (362). He made his Major League debut in Milwaukee on April 13, 1954. A fracture ankle cut his season short in early September, but he finished 4th in the voting for the “Rookie of the Year” he closed out the year with 13 home runs. There was little doubt he was a super-star in the making.
He was also frustrated with the lack of progress of Africa-Americans on the field of play (less than 10%), lack of GMs in the front office, lack of managers on the field and lack of black ownership in the sky-suites. He watched as so-called black brothers pretended to be minority owners in name and title only. They made no on-field or off-field baseball decisions to help the team win.
Hank faced racism around each base he ran, especially, after each home run he hit during his quest to break the record of the legendary home run king, Babe Ruth. In Major League Baseball Ruth’s home run record of 714 was sacred and stamped “White Privilege.” Hank didn’t just talk the talk in the struggle for civil and human rights, he walked the walk while challenging Major Leauge Baseball to live up to the ground breaking efforts of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. He was the loudest voice to be heard that the Negro League players were equal to the white players in the Major Leagues. In December 2020 MBL finally recognized the Negro Leagues as an equal partner for whatever that is worth in 2021.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick on Friday reminded fans that Aaron broke in with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, just seven years after Jackie Robinson shattered the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. So Aaron faced the same brutal racism other Black players of the era experienced, especially as the slugger approached Ruth’s home run record. “This Black man in the deep South was about to break a record that no one really thought could ever be broken and that was not wearing well on a lot of (white) people,” Kendrick told the MLB Network, shortly after getting word of Aaron’s passing. “And yet he was able to withstand, endure and still perform at an exceptional high level.” Kendrick added: “He’s as much of a civil rights icon as anyone.”
My wife Hattie and I had the opportunity (Privilege) to spend some private and quite time with him right after he broke the Babe’s record. Ali called to tell me Hank was coming to DC and he wanted to see our Rumble in the Jungle interview. Ali had given him my number. Hank called and invited us to meet him at his downtown hotel for lunch. After lunch we went back to his room and watched the interview. He loved the video and said, “You guys were really serious, you really captured the real Ali, congratulations.”
He walked us to the elevator and asked me to write our home address and telephone number down for him. Several weeks later we received a check in the mail for $1,000 dollars made out to Kids In Trouble and a note saying, “keep helping kids.” In 1980 I held a fund raiser on my birthday at the Foxtrappe Club in DC. I raised $5,000 dollars hoping to help the Atlanta police solve, ‘The Atlanta Child Murders.’
Hank said, that he was deluged with racist hate mail and death threats as a Black player threatening the mark of one of the most popular white players to ever play the game. He said he kept all of the letters to remind his grandchildren how pervasive racism is in the country. “In all of the interviews that the police and the detectives and whoever was in charge did, (they said) all of these were probably just crank letters, but there may be one in there from someone that meant something,” He said in a October 2016 interview.
Hank wrapped up his 23-year career in the majors in 1976 with a boatload of records that still stand including 2,297 runs batted in, 6,856 total bases and 25 All-Star game appearances. But the former Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves great is best known for a record that no longer stands — hitting his way to the all-time home run record previously held by Babe Ruth and later eclipsed by Barry Bonds. Aaron, hit 755 home runs.
He was a class act, he showed little bitterness that his home run mark was surpassed in a modern era that has emphasized long balls and had been helped along by better training methods and even doping. When Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run in San Francisco in 2007, the Giants played a videotaped congratulatory message from Hank. He said on NBC’s Today show last year, “It’s kind of hard for me to digest and come to realize that Barry cheated in the home runs,” He still called Bonds the home run king of baseball, and he doesn’t believe other great players of the steroid era should be banned from Cooperstown.
He was a class act to the end, the shoes he wore in our struggle for civil and human rights will be hard to fill in pro sports.