The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Racism carved away a piece of Hank Aaron’s heart. What remained was still a gift.

A statue of Hank Aaron outside the former Turner Field in Atlanta. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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It’s not hyperbolic to consider Hank Aaron the perfect baseball player. It’s not some grief-swelled attempt to lionize an irreplaceable giant. The man could do everything: hit for average, hit for power, run, play flawless defense in right field, lead. He could persist, through racist hate and death threats, and break the sport’s hallowed home run record.

Aaron, who died Friday after 86 years of quiet, dignified and relentless living, was so great that he could have accessed the Hall of Fame without those 755 homers. Take them all away, and he still would be left with 3,016 hits. And that’s just the easiest way people illustrate his layered brilliance. He was a five-tool player who could have picked any single skill and made a lasting impact. Home runs don’t fully capture him. He just happened to be so good at hitting them — and he did it so well for so long — that they became his most obvious on-field achievement.

Celebrating Aaron is not a task that can be completed in a single, solemn day. There were so many dimensions to him — so much substance and so little flash — and the sad part is that, though he left this world an icon, his route to reverence was so painful that he never felt all the love. And for as much as we may admire Aaron, we never experienced all of him. There was always a wall, created because of racism and fortified by Aaron himself out self-preservation. It is a wall that many Black Americans, no matter how popular and no matter what age, put up just to survive.

Obituary: Hank Aaron, baseball titan who became civil rights force, dies at 86

We have long considered Aaron underrated. That says something about us, not him. He just went to work, for 23 big league seasons, the last player to rise from the Negro Leagues to the majors. His career was a poetic bookend to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. As a teenager, Aaron went to hear Robinson speak in Mobile, Ala., strengthening his desire to make it in baseball. He was committed, and from his debut at age 20, his determination was always on display. And it was often tested, especially when he challenged Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 homers.

We tend to label Aaron in a generic manner. We like to say he was an understated man of grace. Yes, he overflowed with grace, but like with his game, it’s important to look deeper. Behind that grace was restraint. On the inside, he was heartbroken, raging, skeptical. People threatened to kill him and terrorize his family all because he was approaching Ruth’s record. He had risen from the Jim Crow South and become baseball royalty, only to realize it didn’t matter how outstanding he performed or how classy he acted. He was still the enemy to some White people, and there were enough who thought this — or tolerated it — to drain joy from his signature feat.

“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Aaron told the New York Times in 1994, 20 years after he hit No. 715. “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 ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

Thomas Boswell: Hank Aaron's greatness and grace were underappreciated and unmatched

Imagine that. Think of your proudest moment, the culmination of your life’s work. And then picture receiving thousands of letters expressing a desire to end your life just because your greatness doesn’t fit into their limited, bigoted view of the world.

Of course, Aaron created a fortress.

Few stars of his caliber have been so impenetrable. He was kind but closed during his playing days. Who could blame him? He was smart to be so protective, but Aaron being Aaron, there was another layer. Although it was difficult for many people to know him, Aaron offered enough of himself to inspire others and become an influential voice in challenging baseball to pursue greater equality. Despite his reservations, he took on the responsibility of being a great teller of baseball’s story. Aaron could restrain even his pain and distrust, turning the struggle into something beneficial.

He played the game in such a controlled manner. Willie Mays played with great flair, letting his hat fall off his head on purpose to emphasize his exceptional speed and turning what could have been routine plays into spectacular ones. Mickey Mantle enjoyed transcendent appeal. Aaron just kept playing his multifaceted game. He made a hard, vexing sport seem simple.

He was durable and consistent. He aged impressively long before Tom Brady had his first bite of avocado ice cream. Aaron won his only MVP in 1957, but he finished in the top three six other times and was fifth once. He was an MVP at age 23 and still a top-five player at 33. Then his power increased at 37, when he hit a career-high 47 home runs. And he was still hitting 40 bombs at 39.

Hank Aaron fought racism the way he played: Quietly but with power

That’s the most effective way to deal with hatred, with continuous forward movement and an understanding that it’s necessary to both prepare for the worst and remain adamant in pursuit of better.

Barack Obama called Aaron “one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.” Of the racism he endured while chasing Ruth’s record, the former president said in a statement: “Those letters changed Hank, but they didn’t stop him.” Aaron protected himself, but he still had the heart to lead.

Sports lost one of the greatest human beings it has ever produced Friday. America, still resistant to sincere and everlasting change, lost a powerful and elegant repudiation of its evil.

There were just two things Henry Louis Aaron couldn’t do: quit and relax. Thank heavens he was incapable of the former. And now, in death, he can do the latter. Which means it’s on us to alleviate a pain that now outlasts him.