Hank Aaron passed away at age 86 according to a family friend.
Baseball has suffered some considerable losses in the past year: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Dick Allen, Tony Fernandez, Tom Seaver, Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton, just to name a few.
But who could have seen this coming? It seemed as if Aaron would live forever. Baseball’s “true” home run king was probably the second most influential African-American player in the history of the sport after Jackie Robinson. And an undeniable national treasure and inspiration for all.
One Home Run Changed
Most can’t honestly understand what a single home run meant 46 years ago.
After all, we have seen so much change since April 8, 1974.
Heck, we even had a two-term African American president in Barack Obama.
If you think that was a pipedream in 1974, the same would be said about a black man having the most home runs in Major League Baseball history.
Before that historic blast, four days earlier, Aaron tied the legendary Bambino with a bomb against “The Big Red Machine.”
Not only was it the most prestigious honor in this country, it was something few could believe a black man would have ownership of, especially after being held back from competing until 1947.
First, Jackie Robinson broke down the color barrier. Then, it was Aaron, making the national pastime ours.
Today is the 46th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run. Aaron’s homer off of Dodgers’ Al Downing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium broke Babe Ruth‘s long-standing record of 714 home runs.
It was a mark most thought would stand forever. After all, to that point, Ruth was considered the best player America had seen.
Iconic Black Achievements
For Black America, it was a huge sense of pride. It was one of those moments when you knew where you were when you heard Aaron, a black man, was the MLB HR king.
So much so, that even Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker – who had a very good baseball career himself – calls it the greatest moment in his career. And Baker was simply in the on-deck circle, watching Aaron hit that homer on that unforgettable night.
“People ask me, ‘What was the highlight of your career?’ That was it,” Baker told the AP.
It was such a big deal that not all celebrated. In fact, Aaron was more relieved than happy.
He was put through hell getting there. Some couldn’t stomach the idea of a black man being “The Man.”
Aaron received racist hate mail and death threats. His college-age kids had security people watching over them during their dad’s pursuit of a piece of American history.
Aaron stood brave and prevailed.
The 86-year-old Aaron enjoyed that moment much more as he entered the twilight of his magnificent life. Hammerin Hank — the one man that Muhammad Ali said he idolized “more than myself.” popularity soared as the years passed.
He came a long way from Mobile, Alabama. Born on Feb. 5, 1934, Henry Louis Aaron was one of eight children born to Herbert and Estella Aaron. As he challenged the mythical Babe Ruth for MLB’s scared record back in the 70s, he received death threats and racist taunts at the ballparks.
Fans have been kind to Aaron as the years have gone on. “It means an awful lot to me,” he once said.
The Braves have honored Aaron in so many ways over the years. In 2014 they wore 40th-anniversary patches on their uniform sleeves to mark the historic occasion. More recently, in February, Aaron was honored again.
And while some won’t forget Aaron’s shining moment, some, sadly, have forgotten what a great player Aaron truly was.
Of course, many become the prisoner of the moment and believe that whatever they are watching today is better than anything that happened in the past.
Don’t Forget About Hank
When Miguel Cabrera was winning Triple Crowns and MVPs, there was buzz on social media by fans that Cabrera was the best right-handed hitter in baseball history.
Hold the phone.
Even then-Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland said it was too hard to compare. “The only thing I would say because I would never disrespect people like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, I do think it’s harder to hit today because of specialization in the bullpen.”
“But I would never get in one of those comparison things. You make yourself look like a fool when you start talking about that.”
Despite all that Aaron accomplished in his career, he was definitely underappreciated and overlooked.
It’s impossible, however, for real baseball fans to ignore the facts.
After all, Aaron played 23 seasons and nearly averaged 100 RBI a season (2,297 RBI total). Plus, if you took away Aaron’s 755 HRs from his all-time hits total, he’d still have over 3,000 hits.
Aaron was, and still is, one of the greatest players to ever wear a major-league uniform. He was also a quiet, workmanlike superstar.
Of course, Barry Bonds, another black man, passed Aaron as baseball’s home run king. Aaron hit 755 and Bonds hit 762.
But nearly a half-century ago, it was Aaron’s blast over the left field fence in Atlanta that changed America, allowing black people all over this country to take ownership of the greatest title in the land.
It’s a great moment in our history that should never be forgotten.