Friday, January 22, 2021

Baseball Legend Hank Aaron Has Died

I was just a kid, and Willie Mays was my favorite at the time (after leaving the S.F. Giants, he had just one more year or so with the N.Y. Mets before retiring), so I can't say I'm a "Henry Aaron" fanatic. I also wasn't watching that day, at Dodger Stadium, when he hit #715.

But Aaron's story is absolutely phenomenal and historic. Just reading his obit, I've been literally shaking my head at what the man dealt with in his life and career.

In any case, here's his NYT obituary (I know, I know, but FWIW), "Hank Aaron, Home Run King Who Defied Racism, Dies at 86":

Hank Aaron, who faced down racism as he eclipsed Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king, hitting 755 homers and holding the most celebrated record in sports for more than 30 years, has died. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, his team for many years, confirmed the death on Friday in a message from its chairman, Terry McGuirk. No other details were provided.

Playing for 23 seasons, all but his final two years with the Braves in Milwaukee and then Atlanta, Aaron was among the greatest all-around players in baseball history and one of the last major league stars to have played in the Negro leagues.

But his pursuit of Ruth’s record of 714 home runs proved a deeply troubling affair beyond the pressures of the ball field. When he hit his 715th home run, on the evening of April 8, 1974, against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he prevailed in the face of hate mail and even death threats spewing outrage that a Black man could supplant a white baseball icon.

Aaron was routinely brilliant, performing with seemingly effortless grace, but he had little flash, notwithstanding his nickname in the sports pages, Hammerin’ Hank. He long felt that he had not been accorded the recognition he deserved.

He played for teams far beyond the news media centers of New York and the West Coast, and his Braves won only two pennants and a single World Series championship, those coming long before he approached Ruth’s record.

Aaron did not enjoy the idolatry accorded the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle or match the exuberance and electric presence of the Giants’ Willie Mays, his outfield contemporaries and rivals for acclamation as the greatest ballplayer in major league history.

But when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility, Aaron received 97.8 percent of the vote from baseball writers, second at the time only to Ty Cobb, who was inducted in 1936.

Aaron grew up in Alabama amid rigid segregation and its humiliations, and he faced abuse from the stands while playing in the South as a minor leaguer. Years later, he felt that Braves fans were largely indifferent or hostile to him as he chased Ruth’s record. And the baseball commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, was not present when he hit his historic 715th home run.

All that, and especially the hate mail that besieged him, seared Aaron for years to come.

As the 20th anniversary of his home run feat approached in the early 1990s, he told the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, “April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.”

“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” he said. “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 ball parks. 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.”

Aaron’s achievements went well beyond his home run prowess. In fact, he never hit as many as 50 homers in a single season.

He was a two-time National League batting champion and had a career batting average of .305. He was the league’s most valuable player in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves won their only World Series championship. He was voted an All-Star in all but his first and last seasons, and he won three Gold Glove awards for his play in right field.

Aaron combined with the Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews for 863 home runs during their 13 years together on the Braves, the most ever for two teammates.

Aaron remains No. 1 in the major leagues in total bases (6,856) and runs batted in (2,297); No. 2 in at-bats (12,364), behind Pete Rose; and No. 3 in hits (3,771), behind Rose and Cobb. He won the National League’s single-season home run title four times, though his highest total was only 47, in 1971. Matching his jersey number, he hit exactly 44 home runs in four different seasons.

At six feet tall and 180 pounds, Aaron was hardly the picture of a slugger, but he had thick, powerful wrists, enabling him to whip the bat out of his right-handed stance with uncommon speed.

“He had great forearms and wrists,” Lew Burdette, the outstanding Braves pitcher, recalled in Danny Peary’s oral history “We Played the Game” (1994). “He could be fooled completely and be way out on his front foot, and the bat would still be back, and he’d just roll his wrists and hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Aaron was quick on the bases and in the outfield...

More at the link.


matism said...

One wonders if perchance it was a result of the vaccination he got a little while ago???