Gifted and hardworking, Henry Aaron aspired to excellence in his work. That’s all. No sooner did he achieve it than he found himself conscripted into a role he never bargained for. He rose to the challenge, with an unfeigned low-key decorum that was at the heart of his contribution to America’s self-understanding.
From his childhood in Mobile, Ala., during the Great Depression, Aaron knew hardship. He learned early the value of middle-class virtues. “I grew up in a home where there was little in the way of material goods,” he said in his induction speech in Cooperstown in 1982, “but there was an abundance of love and discipline.” His family couldn’t afford baseball equipment, so he practiced by hitting bottlecaps with broomsticks.
The next thing he knew, he was playing right field for the Milwaukee Braves. A front-office publicist rechristened him “Hank,” hoping to soften his image. The name stuck, but Aaron’s demeanor remained unchanged, serious and reserved. A couple of batting championships and several hundred home runs later, America had informally conferred on him the triple crown of national hero, cultural icon, and symbol of the success of the civil-rights movement. In front of microphones and cameras, whether in the clubhouse or at the podium, he discharged his royal duties with the same quiet grace that throughout his quarter-century of professional ball he carried with him in the outfield and in the batter’s box.
That his career began in the twilight of the Negro Leagues era — he joined the Indianapolis Clowns at age 18, in 1952 — is emblematic of the chapter that we take his life story to illustrate in the history of the United States after World War II. When Branch Rickey had decided to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, the pioneer black player he was looking to promote to the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers had to meet two sets of high standards: one for skill, the other for character. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts,” he told Jackie Robinson at their first meeting. Robinson assured him that he was a fighter. Rickey corrected him: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Black players in the early days of MLB’s integration were lionized in the public square but more susceptible to furtive, menacing demonstrations of racial animus than they’d been before their elevation to celebrity status. A quarter-century after Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field for the first time, Aaron was still getting hate mail and death threats. They escalated in 1973 as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. If he felt intimidated, he didn’t show it. If he felt righteous indignation, he weighed his words before expressing it. He modeled restraint.
On his first swing of the 1974 season, he tied Ruth’s record. Four days later, on April 8, against Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he connected for his 715th, in Atlanta, before a crowd ecstatic to witness one of their hometown nine make baseball history of such magnitude. Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ announcer, captured the social significance of the moment. “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol,” he remarked to his audience. “And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron” betrayed a certain emotion, showing relief from the tension he must have been coping with “the past several months.”
Aaron finished his career where he began it, in Milwaukee, playing two seasons for the Brewers, but the hat he wears on his Hall of Fame plaque is of course that of the Braves, which relocated to Atlanta in 1966. In his major-league career of 23 years, he amassed 3,771 hits, including 755 home runs, and 2,297 runs batted in, more than anyone before or since. He hit .393 in the 1957 World Series and powered the Braves to victory in seven games over the Yankees.
“It was not fame I sought,” Hank Aaron said on that afternoon in Cooperstown nearly 40 years ago, “but rather to be the best baseball player that I could possibly be.” It’s the country’s good fortune that he was more than that. On Friday, two weeks before his 87th birthday, he died in his sleep. R.I.P.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial stated incorrectly that Hank Aaron was voted National League Rookie of the Year in 1954. He wasn’t. It was Wally Moon. Aaron was voted rookie of the year in the Northern League (a minor league) in 1952. We regret the error.