The Measure of a Man
I’m old enough to remember seeing Henry Aaron playing baseball for the Milwaukee Braves . . . and the Atlanta Braves . . . and the Milwaukee Brewers. He was among the first group of baseball players who were my heroes --- the superstars around which the game revolved. Because I was born two years after Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier” in major league baseball I thought baseball had always been integrated (when I first started “seriously” watching at age 8). The 1957 World Series is the first I remember clearly (I have vague recollections of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodger victory and the 1956 “perfect-game” Series) but the Yankees-Braves series was the first where I knew who the players were --- and Henry Aaron (“Hank,” “Hammerin’ Hank”) was the Braves answer to “our” Mickey Mantle. Those two men were the superstars on their respective teams (and this was before the term “superstar” was used!). They were among a handful of ballplayers who transcended the game because they were, quite simply, head-and-shoulders better than their peers. The others, at that time, were Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, and Frank Robinson. With Henry Aaron’s passing yesterday, only Willie Mays remains. But I want to look at that group of players collectively before focusing on Aaron and his importance not only to the game of baseball but also as a cultural icon.
Two things should be noted about this group of ballplayers who were so influential to my development as a fan --- and as a young player: #1) they were all Black; #2) they were “human-sized” (which makes their accomplishments all the more staggering!). Let me address the second issue first, because it’s important. These men, to me, were Baseball Gods who were all, clearly, headed to the Hall of Fame. Yet they were identifiable human beings. Check out these simple height-and-weight statistics:
Hank Aaron 6 ‘0” 180 lbs.; Willie Mays 5’10” 170 lbs.; Ernie Banks 6’1” 180 lbs.; Roberto Clemente
5’ 11” 175 lbs.; and Frank Robinson 6’1” 183 lbs. (Mickey Mantle, by the way, was 5”11” 195). The point here is simple --- these guys were the size of our Dads. Unlike today’s players, many of whom look more like NBA or NFL athletes, our heroes allowed kids to truly believe they could become big-leaguers! And that connects back to the first point: they were our idols and to us (at least to me and my brother) their race was not a factor in our identifying with or, better, aspiring to be like them. It wasn’t until I was older, as I approached Middle School in the late 50’s and early ‘60’s, that race and civil rights began to enter my consciousness. But it still didn’t affect me as regards who my athletic heroes were --- it was a very multicultural group across all the sports I loved. Sure, I rooted for Mantle and Maris, but I still believed Aaron, Mays, Clemente, Banks, and Robinson were as good (or better --- I still think Mays is the Baseball GOAT). Same in basketball, where Bill Russell was my Gold Standard and, while I was a huge Y.A. Tittle fan I would have killed if the Giants could’ve gotten Jim Brown, the greatest running back of all time! And I think this is where sports is so important for kids because, when done right, it focuses on the importance of team play and presents examples of individuals who achieve feats we can aspire to. And that’s where Henry Aaron re-enters the story.
I was about to turn 25 years old when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, hitting #715 on April 8, 1974 and was in awe of the accomplishment but also, by that time in my life, knew the adversity Aaron faced. By 1974 I was extremely aware of just how racist our nation was and I knew that a Black Man breaking the record of one of our culture’s most mythic White icons would not sit well with millions of my fellow citizens. Aaron, always the epitome of humility and class, did not amplify to the public what he and his family was going through in the moment --- it was only later, in the 1980’s that we, the pubic, learned the full extent of the threats on his life and the threats on his family. The fact that the Atlanta fans weren’t particularly supportive led Aaron to return to Milwaukee and play for the Brewers his last two seasons. As noted in the January 22nd New York Times:
Aaron had little interest in continuing to play for the Braves after the 1974 season. He felt that notwithstanding Atlanta’s reputation as a progressive representative of the New South, he had received only tepid backing from the fans as he neared Ruth’s record. And he heard racial abuse from some fans that reminded him of his minor league days in the Sally League.
“I didn’t expect the fans to give me a standing ovation every time I stepped on the field, but I thought a few of them might come over to my side as I approached Ruth,” Aaron said in his memoir. “At the very least, I felt I had earned the right not to be verbally abused and racially ravaged in my home ballpark.”
The modern civil rights movement made historic gains during Aaron’s career, but he knew that the road to equal treatment remained long.
“Any Black who thinks the same thing can’t happen today is sadly mistaken,” he told The Times in 1994. “It happens now with people in three-piece suits instead of with hoods on.”
Early on in his career, Black players were barred from hotels where white teammates stayed during spring training in Florida. Aaron joined with Bill Bruton, the Braves’ African-American center fielder, in pressing management for change, with no immediate success. Although Aaron wasn’t vocal on the larger civil rights scene, he became interested in the writings of James Baldwin, decrying patience in the face of racism.
“Baseball has done a lot for me, given me an education in meeting other kinds of people.”. But he added pointedly, “It has taught me that regardless of who you are and how much money you make, you are still a Negro.”
“I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth. I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”
Henry Aaron grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, played in the Negro Leagues, had a Hall of Fame major league baseball career, and had a full life as a businessman, baseball executive, husband and father. He was a brilliant athlete and a humble man, finally recognized as an “icon” long after he should have been. A younger generation of fans may only remember that he surpassed Babe Ruth’s record (while never hitting 50 home runs in one season) without noting that he is third in hits, all-time (take away ALL his homers and he still have over 3,000 hits!). But Henry Aaron would never have been the man to point all that out to you. He let his playing tell the tale, just as the civil rights work he did off the field was done quietly. The old cliché is “He played the game the way it’s supposed to be played” but, in Henry Aaron’s case “He lived life the way it’s supposed to be lived.” I hope people recognize the measure of this exceptional man.
Thanks for reading and stay safe.