“I don’t even think I can talk right now,” Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros’ manager and a former teammate and protege of Aaron’s with the Atlanta Braves half a century ago, half-whispered into his cellphone about a half-hour after getting the news. “My father was the biggest influence in my life, and Hank was the only other man who came close.”
Few figures commanded such universal respect and admiration as Aaron did in the latter decades of his life, both within the sport he dominated — as its onetime home run king and a 25-time all-star — and beyond. If a non-sports fan knew the name of only one ballplayer, it was probably Hank Aaron. If a baseball-crazed fan had an idol outside of his favorite team, it was probably Hank Aaron.
Even among gatherings of the sport’s titans, as when Hall of Famers amass in Cooperstown, N.Y., each July for another induction, Aaron had a different aura about him on the stage — surrounded by so-called peers who, in truth, considered themselves Aaron’s lessers — and when each was introduced, his ovation had a different tone and pitch.
“He didn’t demand respect — he commanded it,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t just because of what he did on the field. It was because of who he was and what he went through. He had a giant presence. And it was earned — and then some.”
Every October since 1999, the best hitter in each league has been honored before a World Series game with the Hank Aaron Award, in a ceremony that inevitably has produced the sight of two strapping, young sluggers at the height of their powers rendered speechless and slight in the presence of the great Aaron himself — until Aaron put them at ease with a gracious smile or a kind word.
“Whenever Hank was in the building and down on the field, guys would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, would you introduce me to Hank?’ ” Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones, who played for the same Braves franchise with which Aaron spent the bulk of his career, said during a video news conference. “And I’d say: ‘Just walk up to him! You don’t need me to introduce you. He’s the nicest guy. He’s never going to blow you off.’ … We’re not only talking about a transcendent baseball player but a transcendent person in American history as well. He’s a beautiful human.”
“Hank was the standard of greatness for me,” Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas tweeted. “The one man who I acted like a kid around.”
If all Aaron had contributed to baseball were the statistics on the back of his baseball card, his legacy would still be immense. He held the career home run record — the number itself, 755, became perhaps the most famous in sports — for 33 years, bookending one record holder, Babe Ruth, who played in the pre-integration era and another, Barry Bonds, whose accomplishments were tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. To many, including many whose opinions matter, Aaron remains the true home run champ.
“Barry Bonds was a terrific player,” Palmer said, “but I think Hank Aaron’s home runs were more legitimate.”
And he was far from a one-dimensional home run hitter. Only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb amassed more hits than his 3,771. His 2,297 RBI remain the most all-time and are more than Frank Howard and Joe Morgan had combined. He won three Gold Glove awards as a right fielder and finished in the top 10 in the National League in stolen bases eight times. He was an all-star every year from 1955, his second season, to 1975, his second-to-last.
“People still don’t know how good a baseball player he was,” Jones said. “To this day, I have to look at the back of that [baseball] card and remind myself because some of the numbers just get lost.”
But Aaron’s impact went well beyond the numbers, and he was remembered Friday as more than an iconic sports figure but an iconic cultural one as well. His breaking of Ruth’s home run record in 1974 came amid death threats and overt racism, and he would later become a prominent figure in the nation’s civil rights struggle.
“With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people,” President Biden said in a statement. “But he was unbreakable.”
“Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” former president Barack Obama said in a statement. “Whenever Michelle and I spent time with Hank and his wife, Billye, we were struck by their kindness, generosity and grace — and were reminded that we stood on the shoulders of a previous generation of trailblazers.”
“He was a giant in our game and inspired so many on and off the field,” Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. tweeted. “What he endured and how he persevered to surpass the all-time [home run] record, thought to be unbreakable, was remarkable.”
Aaron “wasn’t handed his throne” as the home run king, former president George W. Bush said in a statement. “He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him.”
For nine months, baseball has been on a devastating losing streak, with the death of a staggering 10 Hall of Famers since April. The nine before Aaron: pitchers Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton; outfielders Lou Brock and Al Kaline; second baseman Joe Morgan; and manager Tommy Lasorda.
But with all due respect to them, Aaron’s death hit in a different way altogether. The others were all-time greats at their craft and enjoyed a level of fame and relevance that makes them in a sense immortal. But Aaron was simply different, and a Hall of Famer would be the first to tell you.
“We’re mere Earthlings,” Jones said. “He’s on a different level.”