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Hank Aaron's Lasting Impact is Measured in More than Home Runs

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tags: obituaries, racism, baseball, Hank Aaron



Henry Aaron, who rose up from the depths of Southern poverty to become one of the towering figures in baseball history as well a bittersweet symbol of both American racial intolerance and triumph, has died today. He was 86.

When he retired in 1976 after a 23-year major league career with the National League Braves (spending 1954 to 1965 in Milwaukee, 1966-74 in Atlanta) before playing his final two seasons with the American League Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron had amassed staggering offensive numbers, holding the career records for most home runs (755), RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856), games played (3,298), at-bats (12,364) and plate appearances (13,941). He was second behind Ty Cobb in hits (3,771), though he held the NL record.

He is still the career leader in total bases and RBIs and is third in hits behind Pete Rose and Cobb. He was the first player in baseball history to amass 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits and the last player in history to be promoted from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues. Aaron appeared in a record 24 All-Star Games, won batting titles in 1956 and 1959, led the league in home runs four times, was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1957, and twice appeared in the World Series, winning the title in 1957 when the Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games.

Aaron was a magnificent player whose career paralleled more charismatic, spectacular players such as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, whose brilliance often overshadowed his prolific but workmanlike style, but it was his three-year pursuit of Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs that elevated him into an enduring national figure. The record-breaking home run, which came in the fourth inning off Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing on April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, provided one of the most lasting images in the sport and also one of its most poignant moments.

For years, Aaron had received thousands of letters, many of them racist, and many of which contained death threats against him and his family. The image of him rounding second base escorted by two jubilant white fans who had leaped onto the field became one of the most iconic in sports. Less known was that, as Aaron rounded the bases, his bodyguard, Calvin Wardlaw, sat in the stands, his hand secretly on his revolver, deciding in an instant whether the two young fans were hostile in their intent and whether he would shoot them.

Over the years, Aaron would be praised for his quiet resolve and dignity in the face of the threats. He would dine with international heads of state and every sitting president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, but the negative response from so many of his countrymen was a scar he would carry for the rest of his life.

"It was supposed to be the greatest triumph of my life, but I was never allowed to enjoy it. I couldn't wait for it to be over," he once said. "The only reason that some people didn't want me to succeed was because I was a Black man."

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Aaron was always known as a dangerous line-drive hitter, whose legendary quick wrists created enough torque to also hit home runs. He was, before his 30th birthday, ahead of pace to break Cobb's all-time hit mark, but before the 1963 season, with the Braves' suffering from an aging core and fewer stars, Aaron made a conscious effort to hit more home runs. During the 1960s, the accepted narrative was that it was Mays who had the best chance to break Ruth's record, but that began to change dramatically toward Aaron. By 1970, as the team had moved to Atlanta in 1966, it was clear that Aaron, and not Mays, had the best chance to challenge all-time home run the record.

For the first time in a career overshadowed by Mays and Mantle and Banks, the national spotlight focused on Henry Aaron. Wary of the South and its racial practices, Aaron had been reluctant about the Braves moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta and was outspoken about his desire not to return to the region of his roots, fears that were assuaged by his involvement in the civil rights movement and friendships with the Atlanta Black political establishment. His personal life had changed as well, divorcing his wife Barbara of 18 years, but Aaron astounded teammates with his focus. Aaron responded by hitting 203 home runs between the ages of 35 and 39, including a career-high 47 in 1971. In 1972, Aaron signed the richest contract in baseball history: three-years, $600,000. Aaron remarried in 1973, finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs, one shy of Ruth, and obsessed the entire winter that he might be assassinated before the 1974 season began.

When the record finally fell, Aaron finished the season with the Braves but the pursuit of Ruth had exhausted him. He was 40 years old but wanted to continue playing. The Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers following the 1974 season, reuniting him with the city in which he began his career and with his friend Bud Selig.

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Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, on 406 of 415 ballots. His 97.83 induction percentage was the second-highest in history, behind only Ty Cobb, and today is ninth all time. For years in retirement, Aaron felt disconnected from the game, embittered both that he felt the game did not appreciate him or his achievements and baseball's slow and often stalled progress in minority hiring. He had integrated the front office in baseball when the Braves made him the first African-American farm director in baseball history. He had clashed with baseball in the 1980s, especially during the Al Campanis scandal, which underscored his belief that baseball was not serious about promoting African-Americans into managerial or front office positions.

Read entire article at ESPN

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