Henry Aaron: 1934–2021

A personal memory of the all-time great.

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Henry Aaron, the greatest baseball player in history, died this morning at the age of 86. Because he played in an era in which baseball was a part of what it felt like to be an American, his impact on the sport extended far beyond baseball. America needed Hank Aaron (and Willie Mays and so many others) in ways that it still has not started to appreciate.

In baseball, his statistics will always be eye-popping: if one removes his 755 home runs from his hit total, he still had more than 3000 hits. That is only the beginning of his importance in baseball history. I caught a glimpse once of how he carried himself as a person, which for me has long represented some of the reasons he could have that impact on American society far beyond his baseball card stats. I’ll tell that brief story below.

On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit the 715th home run of his career in Atlanta in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a member of the Atlanta Braves and had been for two decades. His 715th homer broke a record for career home runs that had been set when Babe Ruth hit his final home run in 1935. (Aaron’s final record of 755 homers stood until 2007.)

Aaron received hate mail and death threats for months leading up to the 1974 season and his attempts to tie and break the record. He did not reveal until after he retired just how bad it got, how specific the death threats got (baseball players do not wear bulletproof vests on the field). He kept a tight grin, a “poker face,” as Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully described it in his broadcast, throughout. It was an ordeal, though. “I thank God it’s all over with,” Aaron told the crowd upon touching home plate.

After he hit the home run, Aaron was greeted at home plate by his parents, and the 40-year-old man was briefly, joyfully, once again a little boy playing sandlot ball in front of his parents. That is the moment that always moves me in the video of his historic home run.

Years later, in the late 1980s, I saw Hank Aaron at a baseball card show, where, for a fee, patrons could stand on line and have him autograph items. I did not have the money to pay a fee, so I stood and simply gawped at the hero from nearby. (In a similar setting, I’ve seen Joe DiMaggio, Steve Carlton, and greeted a few other baseball immortals.)

He was scheduled to sign from noon till five o’clock, and at five, he stood, pulled on his camel overcoat, said a thank you and shook hands with some official-looking people, and started to walk out of the venue. Not three steps away from the table where he had sat and smiled his broad smile and signed baseball cards and photos, a dad and a kid walked up to him—and he signed autographs for them. For free. A couple other people approached, tentatively, and he signed things for them, too. For free.

He was off the clock after all, and what a man does with his own time is his own business. No one seemed to complain that they had paid for an autograph that others could now receive for free, probably because the inherent fairness of it all was evident to everyone. He signed a couple autographs, waved, and walked alone into the Mid-Hudson Valley winter night.

That is why whenever I see the name “Hank Aaron,” I’m a little boy watching baseball for the first time all over again.

Every adjective that you will see about Henry Aaron in articles today about his passing—strength, poise, dignity, kindness, decency—they’re all correct, and they were all evident in a brief two-minute encounter that I was privileged to witness some thirty years ago.

* * * *
Here is Vin Scully’s call from April 8, 1974:

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Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season:

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