Hammering Hank was more than a great slugger
For all the accolades he earned over the course of a record-setting, Hall of Fame career in the sport of pro baseball, Hank Aaron unfortunately witnessed all that was bad in the world.
As a child, his mother hid Hank under the bed in the family’s tiny home as members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down the streets of his native Mobile, Alabama.
Later, during World War II, Hank’s father was among Black workers targeted during a riot at a Mobile shipyard. That riot was staged by white workers who were mad because Blacks were being hired.
And much later, when he was chasing down a Major League Baseball record that most thought couldn’t be eclipsed – Babe Ruth’s legendary mark of 714 career home runs – Hank Aaron received hate mail and death threats….and so did his family, including his daughter.
But as is so often the case, good guys come out on top….and Hank Aaron was and will always be a winner in my book.
The sporting world lost a giant on Friday of last week when “Hammering Hank” drew his last breath at the age of 86 in Atlanta, GA. He was among my heroes….a man I marveled at during his professional playing days and then one I came to respect for the way he carried himself as a gentleman and family man on and off the field.
There’s not many sports fans from the 1970’s who were not glued to their TV sets on April 8, 1974 when Aaron and his Atlanta Braves opened a home stand against the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was two months shy of turning 21 at the time, watching that game with my dad, who was a huge fan of baseball and rooting, like me, for Aaron to break the record. He did so in the fourth inning, sending an Al Downing pitch over wall in left-centerfield for career home run 715. I’ll never forget that game.
But what a lot of folks didn’t know was that Aaron was prolific in baseball other than knocking balls out of the park.
For a man whose family was so poor that they couldn’t buy him a ball and a bat when he was young (Hank learned to hit bottle caps with a stick), Aaron turned a lot of heads when he broke into pro baseball in the early 1950’s.
Despite the rampant amount of racism he endured, Aaron had 116 hits, scored 86 runs and drove in 61 in his 1952 debut in the minor leagues. He was named as the league’s Rookie of the Year.
A year later he was promoted to the South Atlantic League where he was at the top of most all statistical categories: 115 hits, 208 runs, RBI (125), and batting average (.362). But yet he was forced to segregate from his white teammates when not on the field.
Two years later, invited to spring training by the then Milwaukee Braves, Aaron hit a homerun in his first at-bat and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to play in 25 All-Star games, and win three Gold Glove awards.
All totaled, he spent 23 seasons in the Braves organization (21 in Atlanta and two in Milwaukee) and two years with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League.
His career stats leave a baseball fan like myself star struck: 3,771 hits, to include 755 homeruns, 2,297 RBI, 2,174 runs scored, a .305 battling average, 240 stolen bases, and a .555 slugging percentage.
He was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in in 1982. Most fittingly, that marked his first year on the ballot and he was nine votes short of being the first unanimous player ever inducted. Wonder what those handful voters were thinking back then? Apparently they only using their heads for a hat rack.
Thank-you, Hank Aaron, for setting an example of how to be a winner on and off the field. Now, whenever I hear the roar of thunder from the heavens, it will represent the sound of a baseball leaving your bat as I know you’re now in the starting line-up of God’s All-Star team.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.