Henry Aaron was my first hero.
I was 5 years old, living in Cobb County, and baseball was the first sport I loved. Since Hank Aaron was the best player on my hometown team, he became my guy.
He died last week at the age of 86 – and he never disappointed.
Henry “Hank” Aaron was, first and foremost, a good man. He was a good man who endured a lot of hate and bigotry as he broke into baseball in the 1950s, and later, as he was chasing major league’s baseball home run record, then held by Babe Ruth.
That home run chase was about the same time I started following baseball and Hank Aaron. He handled that situation with class and dignity – just as he did everything during his entire long life.
But it hurt him. He said as much when he spoke at the Clinch County NAACP banquet in 2000 – when I had the honor to meet Henry Aaron. He wasn’t bitter about the racism and death threats he had to endure in chasing the record, which he passed on April 8 of 1974, but it did affect him and his family, and made what should have been a joyous moment an anxious and terrifying one.
At that 2000 event, actor Ossie Davis (originally from Clinch County) was in attendance, and I was honored to get a photograph of the two legends of the civil rights movement shaking hands.
On the field, I’m of the opinion that Aaron and Ted Williams were the best hitters ever, and Aaron was perhaps the most underrated player in baseball history. In addition to his 755 career home runs, he still holds MLB records for most RBIs, most extra-base hits, most total bases, and most All-Star appearances (25) in a career. I still consider him the all-time home run leader, as I don’t recognize Barry Bonds passing his home-run mark because of Bonds’s rampant steroid use.
But, you know, Henry Aaron didn’t care. He said records were made to be broken, and Barry Bonds was never convicted of anything. Bonds broke his record, as far as he was concerned, and he was fine with that.
Among the tributes after his death was an outstanding interview with Bob Costas from 2010 I watched the other night. In that interview, Costas asked Aaron about being a Cleveland Browns football fan. Aaron responded that he was friends with Jim Brown and Ozzie Newsome and had season tickets to the Browns games in the 1970s. When he could, he said, he would fly up to Cleveland on Sundays and his tickets were in the famous “Dawg Pound.” He would dress up like the rest of the “Dawg Pound,” and cheer for the Browns incognito. He did that for years, he said, until someone recognized him and he stopped going to the games.
I think one reason Aaron’s death has hit home for me is because, well, it hits home. My father, who died in 2013, was the one who introduced me to sports and the Braves and Henry Aaron. He took me to my first Braves game, bought me my first glove, threw with me in the backyard.
This makes me remember something Aaron said in his speech at that NAACP banquet almost 20 years to this day: “Hitting 755 home runs is great, but what I tell young people is to look to their parents as role models,” Aaron said. “They are the real heroes.”
Indeed. And I was richly blessed with a great role model at home, and also in Henry Aaron. RIP 44.