After I heard the sad news about Hank Aaron’s death Friday, at the age of 86, I naturally went to YouTube hoping to relive some of the highlights of his career.
I was looking for, you know, an epic bat flip. Maybe 10 or 15 seconds of Aaron standing at home plate admiring the flight of one of his 755 home runs. A home run trot that lasted two minutes.
I couldn’t find anything.
Okay, full disclosure: I didn’t miss it. In the sports self-congratulation game, less so often is more.
What I remember about Hank Aaron playing baseball is that he seemed to be doing exactly what thousands of coaches told millions of kids who would never be Hank Aaron. See the ball. Smooth swing. Execution.
Aaron wasn’t a big guy. He stood 6 feet, weighed about 180. He wasn’t The Hulk. No superpowers.
He just knew how to swing a bat to hit a baseball and when he did it, he made the hardest thing in sports look easy. He also kept doing it. For 20 years, from 1955 to 1974, you could count on Hank Aaron hitting .300, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs.
That’s probably why he could be simultaneously one of the most admired and most underappreciated players in baseball history. When he led the Milwaukee Braves to a World championship in 1957 and was voted the National League’s most valuable player, there was a sense of yup, that’s what Hank Aaron does.
You took him for granted, like hearing the words “Play ball!” after the National Anthem.
On the field, he was doing his job. Off the field, he was a guy from Mobile, Alabama, who liked fishing, Westerns and the Cleveland Browns. He never came off like a man trying to build a brand. He came off like a man who realized he had the skill to play a professional sport and worked hard to play it as well as he could.
When people would ask him about hitting his 715th home run in 1974, the one that broke Babe Ruth’s revered record, he had the same answer that he gave when Barry Bonds passed Aaron’s own record 33 years later.
What matters is being satisfied you’ve played the game as well as you can, Aaron said. Records are incidental. They’re not the reward.
Now it’s true that Aaron did become a center of national attention in the months leading up to April 8, 1974, when he hit the home run that broke Ruth’s record.
He hit it off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing, who interestingly had the same approach as Aaron. When Downing was asked if he was sorry he was the victim of a milestone homer, he replied nah, not at all. I make my living pitching in Major League baseball. I get paid for doing things like pitching to Hank Aaron. How many people get to do that?
It’s well chronicled that breaking Ruth’s record wasn’t Aaron’s most pleasant quest. He received barrels of racist hate mail, including death threats, which could not be completely offset by the larger number of letters that praised him and thanked him for being an inspiration.
Aaron himself often said he was inspired by Jackie Robinson, who faced a similar flurry of mixed messages after he integrated Major League baseball in 1947.
Nor was Aaron a rookie when it came to the dark underside of American racial attitudes. Early in his career he integrated the South Atlantic (Sally) League, and he often couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his white teammates. From his brief time in the Negro Leagues, he remembered the sound of the staff at a Washington, D.C., restaurant breaking the dishes after black players had eaten off them.
Before that, he was simply born into a generation that grew up with America’s racial strictures. Different people responded in different ways and Aaron ultimately came across less as a crusader than a quiet reminder racial bias is empty and foolish.
He did that by playing the country’s National Pastime the way we envisioned it being played.
He also played before the era when baseball writers would spend thousands of words breaking baseball down into exit velocity and launch angle and the rest of the currently popular analytics vernacular. In Aaron’s world, the sportswriters would say he jumped on a fastball and hit it into the left field seats, giving the Milwaukee Braves a 4–2 lead in the sixth inning. That told baseball fans what they needed to know.
The ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., for many years had a large room whose inside perimeter was lined with rows of TV screens. Each screen was tuned to a different game, with an ESPN worker monitoring that game to find any moment that might be worth featuring as a highlight for SportsCenter that night.
It might be a spectacular play, maybe a game-winner. Maybe even more valuable, it might be weird or wacky.
If there had been a SportsCenter 50 years ago, being given Aaron’s game must have been a nightmare assignment, triggering a desperate scramble to find anything that could pop out as a TV highlight or website click bait.
“Sorry, boss, Aaron hit another one, but he just dropped his bat and ran around the bases. Nothing to see here.”
Yeah, there was.