Henry Aaron was born today, eighty-two years ago in Mobile, Alabama. Known forever as the man who broke Babe Ruth’s career homerun record, a record he held for thirty-three years and a record I believe he would still hold had baseball not entered a period of illegal steroid use. He was much more that a homerun hitter or a baseball player for that matter. In addition to his career seven hundred and fifty-five home runs, he finished his career with over three thousand hits, a career .305 batting average, and major league records in runs-batted-in, extra base hits and total bases. He is also very proud of three Gold Gloves earned playing right field. In 1963, Henry came within a “whisker” of winning a Triple Crown. He led the league in homeruns (44), runs-batted-in (130) but finished third in batting average, hitting .323. Henry also became only the third person to hit over thirty homeruns and steal thirty bases.
Henry was much more than a baseball player. He was a great ambassador for his sport, his race and “human-kind.” Quiet to the point of being stoic, Henry was only known as “Hank” or “Hammering Hank” to the media or “Bad Henry” to opposing pitchers. For a man squarely in the limelight, it was illumination that he did not want. He only wanted to play the game well, something he did for nearly a quarter of a century. In 1973 and early 1974 no one other than Jackie Robinson had come under more racial pressure in sports than Henry Aaron as he approached Babe Ruth’s career homerun record. Henry broke it early in 1974.
Henry received a plaque from the US Postal Service for receiving nearly one million pieces of mail in 1973. Unfortunately, much of it was hate mail as a black man neared a white man’s record. There were also verbal taunts and death threats. Outwardly, Henry was a rock, mostly calm and quiet. Internally I’m sure he seethed. Sometimes it is what you don’t say that tells a story. In a 1974 interview, a visibly tired Aaron said, “I can’t recall a day, this year or last, when I did not hear the name Babe Ruth.”
Late in his career, I went to Fulton County Stadium to take in a double header. The woefully bad Braves were playing the woefully bad Mets but I didn’t care. I would see “Hammering Hank” and another Hall of Famer to be, “Say Hey” Willie Mays. Except I didn’t. Both Aaron and Mays got the day off and the only homeruns were hit by pitchers. “Story of my life!” At least Mays got to pinch hit late in the game. Happy Birthday Henry.