Henry Aaron, RIP: Inimitable

As “715” blasted in neon on the scoreboard way behind them, the entire Dodger infield—including shortstop Bill Russell (left) and second baseman Davey Lopes—shook hands with Henry Aaron rounding the bases and past Babe Ruth at last.

“I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth,” the man once said. “I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.” Among many other things, we now get to remember that Henry Aaron won’t be on this island earth to celebrate with us what he deserved to celebrate untroubled.

Aaron died at 86 this morning, almost three and a half months before the anniversary of his own Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The idiot brigades robbed him of the pleasure of his original triumph, but Aaron’s dignitas robs them of their ability to keep a quietly proud man in what they only think is his place.

He may have been gracious hoping another would break the record he yanked from Ruth, but only one man can claim to have pushed Ruth out of the all-time Show home run record book. The man whose childhood poverty compelled him to teach himself baseball by hitting bottlecaps with sticks eventually hit 755 baseballs over fences, past foul poles, into bullpens, and into the seats.

That childhood in the deep South compelled among other unwarranted disgraces that Aaron’s mother had to tell him and his seven siblings to hide under beds whenever the Ku Klux Klan was on the march in the neighbourhood. A visit to his native Mobile, Alabama by Jackie Robinson in 1948 compelled him to live by learning first and baseball second.

Oops. Aaron skipped school to see Robinson and ended up expelled for truancy and moved to a private school. “Jackie was speaking at a drugstore, and I said, ‘I’m not going to get this opportunity again, so I better take my chances and listen to Jackie Robinson now.’ Little did I know, I got front row seats, and next to me was my father.” Double oops.

Like his fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who once said the only way he liked school as a boy was “closed,” Aaron was on a baseball or nothing mission from almost the outset.

He signed and lasted only a month with the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Leagues teams hanging in. He lasted only the month because Show scouts were on his trail and Boston Braves owner Lou Perini had to have him, outbidding any other comer to sign him. After a short spell in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron helped integrate the old and hostile Sally League (the South Atlantic League) and won its Most Valuable Player Award.

He became a Brave at twenty after the team moved to Milwaukee. He finished fourth in the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year award. He joined white teammate/future manager Eddie Mathews as the Show’s best pair of power teammates since Ruth and Lou Gehrig, whom they surpassed in due course. (Ruth and Gehrig as Yankees: 1,150 home runs between them. Aaron and Mathews as Braves: 1,226 home runs between them. Note: Gehrig as a Yankee and Mathews as a Brave hit the same number of home runs: 493.)

He played quietly, almost stoically through continuing racial growing pains, and finally swung against Cardinals pitcher Billy Muffett with one on in the bottom of the eleventh on 23 September 1957—and hit it over the center field fence to clinch a Braves pennant.

Those Braves would win the World Series and Aaron would be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. It was the only major league MVP he’d actually win, but from then through almost all his career to follow every season he played looked like an MVP season.

The Braves moving to Atlanta for 1966 didn’t thrill him, and well he might have been un-thrilled at returning to the South of his youth that still fought bitterly enough through its racist ways. Neither did a painful 1970 divorce. He resolved his fears the best ways he knew: he joined the civil rights movement quietly and continued playing baseball likewise.

Such contemporaries as Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays so often loomed more immediately and larger in the public eye and mind. The outwardly composed Aaron didn’t hit outrageous punt-like bombs; his once-fabled quick wrists produced howitzer-like line drives, even after he began to think of home runs more consciously in 1963.

He had his ways of brushing the racists to one side. “I never doubted my ability,” he once said, “but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.”

With Mantle retired and Banks, Killebrew and Mays beginning to show their age, 1970 was also the year Aaron became noticeable as the man most likely to pass Ruth’s career home run record. It was the year after Aaron’s Braves won the National League West in the Show’s first season of divisional play but got flattened in three straight by the Miracle Mets in the first National League Championship Series despite Aaron’s efforts. (He had a 1.500 OPS for the set with three home runs, five hits, and seven runs batted in.)

Aaron’s days of postseason baseball were over. He’d just have to settle for becoming a legend. A legend who played and swung through the vilest racists bent on stopping the black man from knocking the Sacred Babe to one side, to the point where police and the FBI had to stay close to the man whose career to date was less bigness than sustained high excellence.

A portrait of the artist as a young Brave.

He knew excellence when he saw it, too. When the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver introduced himself to Aaron at his first All-Star Game and one of Aaron’s 25, Aaron said it straight: “Kid, I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will know who you are, too.”

(Let the record show Aaron once said Seaver was the toughest pitcher he faced. Lifetime against Seaver, Aaron hit a mere .205 with a .281 on-base percentage, with four home runs and sixteen hits overall in 89 plate appearances. His guarantee was hardly unfounded.)

The man Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax nicknamed Bad Henry also played and swung through the most ignorant of the non-racists who yet believed nobody had any business swinging past the Sacred Babe. And, past the manipulators on his own team who wanted nothing less than the Hammer hammering his way to meet and pass Ruth before the home audience when 1974 opened for business.

The Braves were to open in Cincinnati for a set before opening at home. Aaron entered the season needing one home run to meet Ruth and one more to pass him. If then-Braves owner Bill Bartholomay could have gotten away with it, Aaron wouldn’t have poked his nose out of the Braves dugout until they were finished with the Reds and back in Atlanta.

Word of that plan reached three New York sportswriters, Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Dave Anderson of The New York Times; and, Larry Merchant of the New York Post. They said not so fast, post haste. They denounced the plan without softening their prose or apologizing for their stance, ramping up a drumbeat on behalf of convincing then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to head the Braves off at the pass.

It turned out Kuhn didn’t need much convincing. He told Bartholomay, Braves manager Mathews, and anyone else listening that the Braves better not even think about sending a lineup to the plate in Riverfront Stadium without H. Aaron on the card. A fourth New York writer, Red Smith of the Times, nailed the point emphatically:

He explained to Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher might have been Atlanta’s sportswriting dean in that time and place, but he placed himself squarely on the wrong side of the line. Bisher led an equally passionate counterattack, denouncing the New York writers as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who would do better to demand the cleanup of Times Square before criticizing the sainted Braves one of whom was about to blast the Big Fella out of the books without wearing a uniform from New York.

Aaron had spent his entire career to that point helping to prove further that black men belonged in the Show and were perfectly capable of competing and winning with honour and talent, and Bisher and his like spent their own credibility defending a team determined to cheapen true competition so a black man could break a sacred sports record on home grounds.

Aaron squared off in the top of the first against the Reds’ Jack Billingham, a pitcher against whom he’d already hit four major league home runs. He hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up, 3-0. After he rounded the bases his congratulators included Kuhn himself. Mathews sat Aaron out of the second game in the three-game set, gaining a direct order from Kuhn to put him in the third-game lineup.

He struck out twice and grounded out once, fairly and squarely, but Kuhn’s protection of his and the game’s integrity made him wary of going to Atlanta to see Aaron get the Big One. He looked and sounded clumsy saying he’d had a previous engagement. If he’d only said honestly that he didn’t want to distract from Aaron’s achievement, it would have been better.

Every racist, every shill, every manipulator, everyone who thought a quiet guy who didn’t want to eat, drink, or fornicate the world out of house and home had no business busting the record of the loud lout who set it in the first place got it jammed right back down their throats when Aaron squared off against Dodgers lefthander Al Downing with one aboard and nobody out opening the bottom of the fourth.

Nobody described what happened next better than Dodgers broadcast virtuoso Vin Scully:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, and he’s low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . .

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. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.

Henry and Billye Aaron, circa 2002.

Two young fans hit the field to run the bases with the new home run king; Aaron’s bodyguard sat in the stands with a hand on his pistol until he was sure the two young white men were there to love, not kill him. Aaron plunged across the plate into a crowd of teammates through which his parents managed to plow before his mother, Stella, hugged him to plant a big kiss on her son’s face.

“I don’t remember the noise,” Aaron said later. “Or the two kids that ran on the field. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there and she hugging me. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”

He’d retire two years later with 755 home runs and a truckload of further black ink on his resume. He remains baseball’s all time champion for total bases and runs batted in. He was a four-time single-season home run champion, he led his league in slugging four times, OPS three, and total bases eight. His Real Batting Average (RBA)—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—is .624. It’s also the second-best RBA among any Hall of Fame right fielder who played all or most of his career post-integration/post-World War II/night-ball. (Number one: Hall of Famer Stan Musial.)

Aaron wasn’t entirely wrong when he once wondered whether baseball truly appreciated who and what he was. He’d become the Show’s first African-American farm director but bristled quietly over how slow it was to embrace integrating front offices. Yet he was an annual Hall of Fame presence since his own election in 1992, and people of all races in and out of the game sought him out to pick his mind and savour his presence.

They often discovered Aaron belied his public image of composure with a fine, dry wit. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball,” he once said. “I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”

Whether squaring off against the best pitchers in the league yet giving his teammates the bigger credit for team conquests, or taking a COVID-19 vaccination shot, Aaron saw the bigger picture. “I feel wonderful,” he said as he took the needle on 5 January. “It makes you feel like you are doing something not only to help yourself, but to help your community.”

When his former Brewers boss Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner, Selig’s mistakes may have been legion but it was no mistake that Selig went out of his way to celebrate Aaron. He created the Hank Aaron Award handed since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league—its birth was on the silver anniversary of Aaron passing Ruth.

Aaron re-married happily in 1973; he and his wife, Billye, a former television journalist, had the fourth of Aaron’s three children. He enjoyed business success after his playing days, too, building a successful group of BMW dealerships in Georgia. When he played, he kept a book of Christian inspiration in his locker, Thomas a Kepmis’s The Imitation of Christ. Appropriate choice, that. Nobody could imitate either the saviour in whom Aaron believed devoutly or Aaron himself.

Lord, our grief on earth is too profound that a third Hall of Famer who defeated all who’d deflate him is brought home in just this year’s first month. But our comfort is that You have brought him home to be serene, happy, and swinging for the fences in the Elysian Fields, and that Your forgiven servant Ruth received him with a cold beer, a hearty embrace, and a garrulous “That’s the way to do it, kiddo.”

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A very few portions of this essay have been published previously.