I never viewed baseball legend Henry Aaron as a civil rights icon. In the late 1950s and 1960s, when Aaron was hitting home runs and chasing fly balls for the Milwaukee Braves, I compared him to Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle — other hard-hitting outfielders at the time — not with Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders of that time.
Yet the example he set in the face of some of the most intense racism ever heaped on one individual is a lesson we should never forget.
It was the Golden Era of Milwaukee Braves baseball. The powerhouse Braves, with the likes of sluggers Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock and pitchers Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, played in two consecutive World Series against the New York Yankees, winning the 1957 Series and losing the following year in seven games despite holding a three-games-to-two edge.
During my high school years in the early 1960s I saw several games at Milwaukee County Stadium when friend Verl Howell, his dad, his dad’s brother-in-law, LaVerne Mohr, and one or two other friends drove in for Sunday afternoon contests. I thought back to those days when Verl left a phone message and son Tim texted me almost simultaneously with the news of Aaron’s passing on Jan. 22 at age 86.
We would get an early start and arrive at the ballpark by mid-morning, early enough to buy our tickets before the crowd started arriving. We would then drive downtown and park. As the men headed off in search of the beverage for which Milwaukee is known, Verl and I walked to the nearby hotel where visiting teams stayed. We would enter the lobby and hang around just as the players were finishing breakfast and coming in and out of the hotel restaurant and milling about, waiting for the team bus to show up to take them to the ballpark.
That’s how we came to chat briefly and get autographs of Willie Mays, Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and other stars and regulars before it was time to rejoin our group for lunch at the downtown Bob’s Big Boy. Players hadn’t yet started charging $10 or $25 for their autograph. I still have a dozen or more autographs collected from those visits.
At the stadium, the Braves often would provide three players who would sign autographs for an hour or so before Sunday afternoon games. Always the three consisted of two reserve players and one starter. Unfortunately, Hank Aaron was never at an autograph table at a game I attended.
I never met him or had an opportunity to see him off the field. But we knew we were watching one of the great players of the game. We paid close attention whenever he came to bat, always anticipating a home run or extra-base hit.
Through the wonders of the internet and the Baseball Reference website, I was able to find details of a game we saw in late September of 1963. The Braves beat the rival Chicago Cubs that afternoon, 2-0. Hall of Famer Warren Spahn pitched a complete game four-hit shutout. In the bottom of the first inning, Aaron hit a home run to deep left field to provide the only run Spahn needed. When Aaron came to bat the next time, in the bottom of the third, he singled, stole second and scored on a single, accounting for the Braves’ only runs.
That game was a microcosm of Aaron’s offensive skills. He didn’t just swing for the fences, like many players today, but, with his speed on the bases, could turn a single into a run. Watching “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron play was seeing one of the all-time greatest all-around players, as he not only hit for power, but hit for average and was an excellent fielder and a threat to steal or take an extra base.
He broke into professional baseball with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro leagues in 1951. After three months there, his performance drew the attention of a Braves scout, who signed him. It was just four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. After two years in the minor leagues, he debuted with the Braves in April of 1954. He played 21 seasons for the Milwaukee and later Atlanta Braves and finished his career with two seasons back in Milwaukee with the Brewers.
The unassuming Aaron wasn’t flashy or outspoken; he didn’t have the idolatry of Mantle or the electric presence of Mays. He let his bat and glove do the talking. Even his home runs were not towering 450-foot drives to the farthest reaches of the ballpark; most had just enough height and distance to clear the fence and land a few rows back.
He is most famous, of course, for breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 714 career home runs in 1974, a mark that stood for 32 years until Barry Bonds surpassed it in 2006. But Aaron did much more than hit home runs, and, unlike Bonds, he did it without suspicion of chemical enhancement.
Aaron was a model of consistency. None of his single-season home run or runs-batted-in totals rank among the top all time, yet he set career records for both. Forty-four years after he retired, he still holds the career records for RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases even though his yearly totals in those categories aren’t among the highest ever. He never hit as many as 50 home runs in a season, but he hit 30 or more in 15 of his 23 seasons, averaged 37 and matched his uniform number of 44 four times.
He ranks third all time (behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb) in hits. If you took away all his home runs, he still would have more than 3,000 hits, which alone is a measure of a hall of fame-worthy player. He won three Gold Glove awards for his outstanding fielding.
He was selected as an All-Star every year from 1955 to 1975, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1957 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.
That’s what Aaron accomplished on the field. But, even more so, it’s what he endured off the field for which he advanced the cause of blacks everywhere and will forever stand as a role model. In 1953, at age 19, only one year removed from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro leagues, he was one of five players thrust into the integration of the Class A South Atlantic League, in the heart of the South. The major leagues, which Jackie Robinson had integrated just six years earlier, still played no further south than St. Louis and Cincinnati.
“Aaron could not eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same hotels or drink from the same fountains as his white teammates,” Tom Verducci wrote in a 2007 Sports Illustrated story about Aaron. “Fans heaped racially charged insults at the teenager. A white teammate, Joe Andrews, bat in hand, would escort him out of the ballpark after games. And lo, Aaron hit .362 and was named the league’s MVP.”
Two decades later, as he chased and ultimately passed Ruth’s home run record, he received thousands of racially charged hate letters. There were threats on his life. An Atlanta police officer was assigned to provide him with round-the-clock protection. When he broke the record on April 8, 1974, for Aaron the event was not so much a moment of celebration as it was of relief.
In a column following Aaron’s death, friend Bill Tubbs of the North Scott Press noted that in his 1991 autobiography, “The Hank Aaron Story,” Aaron minces no words or apologies that achievement of the record would give him a platform to speak out about human rights. But the joy was gone.
“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period in my life, and it was the worst,” he wrote. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
Aaron kept a sampling of the letters to remind him of that period. This is a family newspaper, but it isn’t enough just to say there was hate mail. Here are a few examples from the thousands of letters:
Dear Hank Aaron,
How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?
Dear J----- B---y,
You may beat Ruth’s record but there will always be one Babe. You will be just another Black f--- down from the trees. Go back to the jungles.
Dear N----- Scum,
N------. Jews. Yankees. Hippies. N----- lovers are the scum of the Earth. N------
are animals, not humans. N------ do not have souls. I despise, hate and detest you scum.
“What does it say of America that a man fulfills the purest of American dreams, struggling up from Jim Crow poverty to dethrone the greatest of Yankee kings yet feels not like a hero but someone hunted, haunted?” a Sports Illustrated story about Aaron later in life asked.
Aaron is one of a number of baseball greats from that era who have passed on this past year. Among them, Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Dick Allen also felt the sting of racism during their careers.
We have come a long way from the days of the Jim Crow South. But events such as Charlottesville and the attack on the nation’s Capitol remind us that racism and hate still live.
Through his talent and resolve, whether facing a Sandy Koufax fastball or an ugly racial taunt, Henry Aaron faced the challenge with grace and dignity and did not let it consume him. He set an example on the field and off for all of us to follow. May it never be forgotten.