By Daniel Kucin Jr.
Special to the AFRO
Henry Aaron, one of baseball’s finest stars of the Negro Leagues and a man who transcended the game into the Major Leagues, passed away on Jan. 22 at the age of 86.
Hammerin’ Hank broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1974 (755) and not only helped break the racial divide, but also did it while reportedly receiving thousands of death threats a day.
“Through his long career, Hank Aaron has been a model of humility, dignity and quiet competence. He did not seek the adoration that is accorded to other national athletic heroes. Yet, he has now earned it,” said former Georgia Congressman Andrew Young shortly after the 1974 performance.
He was more than just a baseball player, but a man who demanded equality as a civil rights activist and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. The president bestows that award to recognize people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Aaron undoubtedly had a career on the diamond that many marveled being a Hall of Famer and is still baseball’s all-time leader in RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856). He was an all-star for 21-consecutive seasons in his 23-year major league career, captured two batting titles and won three Gold Gloves.
In 1957, Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to victory in the World Series and was justly named the National League Most Valuable Player.
“Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person”
“Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire,” Manfred added. “His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history – and find a way to shine like no other.”
Manfred adored Aaron for his philanthropy efforts and the path he took to achieve greatness while still maintaining humility as one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
“Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C. together and talking about how we’ve been the best of friends for more than 60 years,” Manfred said. “Then Hank said: ‘Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a Black kid from Mobile, Alabama, would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the Commissioner of Baseball?’
Aaron never settled for just being a role model as a ballplayer, but instead took the path of being a trailblazer to create more opportunities for African Americans on and off the field and gave back to the community through his Chasing Dream Foundation established in 1994.
Through his work with that organization and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Aaron provided scholarships for the youth to put them on the right path to success through perseverance.
“Our intent was to encourage youngsters to dream a dream and then do what we could to help that dream take root and grow,” his wife, Billye Aaron said. “Henry [Aaron] had the feeling that we need to reach youngsters at an early age before their attention is diverted by the communities in which they live. If they focus, if they have talent, they can certainly achieve. If they do not become stars, they can certainly become good citizens.”
Aaron became one of the first Black executives for the Atlanta Braves after retirement and utilized that platform to promote diversity in the workplace.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank. He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development, and always with our community efforts,” said Atlanta Braves chairman Terry McGuirk.