Remembering Hank Aaron: A baseball giant whose legacy transcends sports

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It was always "Mister Aaron."

"Mister" is not an honorific used lightly. But for a man as revered as Henry Louis Aaron, it was a natural fit. Last month, after he was presented with the Hank Aaron Award by the man himself in a virtual ceremony, Freddie Freeman - who had undoubtedly met him many times in Atlanta - almost seemed in awe.

"Thank you, Mr. Aaron, very much," a visibly moved Freeman said.

That exchange was the essence of Aaron, a baseball icon who died Friday at age 86. He was more than just a baseball player - he was a man so respected even the biggest stars found themselves at a loss for words around him.

And oh, what a player he was. Everyone knows 755, the magic mark that stood atop the home run list for over 30 years. The images and sounds from that April night in Atlanta when he passed Babe Ruth will never be forgotten. But we gloss over his three Gold Glove awards, his still-standing records of RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856), his 3,771 base hits, and 2,174 runs scored. Aaron never hit 50 homers in a season - his career high was 47 in 1971 - but he led the NL four times. He took great pride in rarely striking out. For opposing pitchers, he was a living nightmare.

"Trying to throw a baseball by Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster," former pitcher Curt Simmons once said, according to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal.

But the numbers are a small part of Henry Aaron's story.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, at the height of segregation. He experienced racism from an early age; when the KKK passed his home, young Henry hid under his bed.

"The KKK would march by, burn a cross and go on about their business and then she (my mother) would say, 'You can come out now,'" he told CNN's Jen Christensen in 2014. "Can you imagine what this would do to the average person? Here I am, a little boy, not doing anything, just catching a baseball with a friend of mine and my mother telling me, 'Go under the bed.'"

His professional baseball career began in 1952 with the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns. The Braves signed him partway through the year, and by 1953 he was playing second base in Jacksonville, where he was one of five Black players integrated into the South Atlantic League.

Jacksonville was not easy. Jim Crow was still on the books, and the stadium was segregated. Aaron and the other Black players in the league were subject to regular death threats. He had to travel separately from his teammates, and though he was named MVP of the league, Aaron was forced to endure it all on his own.

The racism did not stop once he became an established star in the majors. As he approached Ruth's home run record, the death threats piled up. The U.S. Postal Service said Aaron received more letters - most of it vile hate mail, many of which he saved - than any non-politician. He required a security detail while traveling with the Braves. By the time he finally hit No. 715, the ordeal had left him physically and mentally exhausted.

"April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball," Aaron told the New York Times' William C. Rhoden in 1994. "It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these thing have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away."

It's easy to characterize Aaron as a larger-than-life figure who "ignored" and "overcame" racism and "persevered" through hate, but those descriptors hide the truth. Aaron was a Black man who dared to hit more baseballs over fences than a white man did decades earlier, and was hated by many for it. He was indeed a person of character and dignity, but those are character traits that didn't come as a result of a life upended by racism.

As a civil rights icon, Aaron used his status to call out racism throughout his life, and pass the realities of being a Black player in a predominantly white sport on to the next generation. He was not blind to the realities of Black Americans, and was not shy about speaking up. Nearly 30 years ago, he offered a now-poignant quote about how racists had evolved since his childhood and career.

"I was surprised at the pressure of hatred, the threats, the mail," Aaron told the Times' Robert Lipsyte in 1994. "I saw a parallel with the hatred Jackie (Robinson) had to play through. And any Black who thinks the same thing can't happen today is sadly mistaken. It happens now with people in three-piece suits instead of with hoods on."

Even in his last few weeks of life, Aaron was not shy about speaking up on social issues. When he received his COVID-19 vaccine two weeks ago, he used the moment to raise awareness for Black Americans, who have been getting sick at a higher rate while being vaccinated at a lower rate.

Your eyes may be drawn to the numbers, the swing, the smile. But Mr. Aaron's true legacy is found off the field, as a person who stood for and personified integrity and equality, and never hesitated to speak the truths as not only a Black player, but also as a Black man.

"I want to be remembered as someone who was able to - forget about baseball, to play the game the way it's supposed to be played, but forget about baseball - but be able to help mankind, help other people, to do things that necessarily would help people that didn’t have the ability or the know-how like I did," Aaron once told USA Today.

"So I want to be remembered as not someone who hit 700 home runs or someone who had a .300 batting average, but someone who did a little bit more, did other things to help mankind."