Last weekend marked the passing of baseball great, Henry Aaron. He was just shy of his 87th birthday.
Aaron was one of my first boyhood sports heroes at a time when kids could still look up to athletes, celebrities and even Presidents as role models. At the time, I didn’t know the 20-something Aaron would go on to club 755 career home runs and break Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714—long considered one of the most unbreakable records in sports.
Aaron was the only pro athlete I knew who had my same first name (Henry), nickname (Hank) and almost the same birthday. It didn’t matter that Aaron came up through the racially segregated South (Mobile, AL) and I was a young, white Jewish kid from partially integrated West Philly, and later the mostly white suburbs. I felt a special bond with Aaron, even more so after reading one of the early biographies about him “I Had a Hammer.
For a legendary power hitter, Aaron was on the small side (6 feet tall and 180 pounds in his prime). I was a scrappy undersized singles hitter. But when they started calling me “Hammerin’ Hank” after a rare over-the-fence home run on my scraggly Little League field, that was the ultimate compliment you could give an impressionable 12-year-old.
For some reason, the moniker, Hammerin’ Hank stuck with me, even after I switched sports, towns, and schools. And I felt duty bound to follow the real Hammer the rest of his illustrious career.
I still have my first Hank Aaron baseball card circa 1970. It’s a little worn around the edges, but it still smells faintly of bubble gum and it hasn’t faded much. In those days you got 10 random cards in a pack for a quarter—plus a large slab of stale bubble gum. After blowing my allowance week after week as I accumulated half a dozen duplicate Jose Cardenals, Denny Doyles and enough Alou Brothers (Matty, Felipe and Jesus), my luck day finally came outside the local drugstore. I tore open the pack, held my breath, and there was Aaron’s likeness right on top, was staring at me, quietly confident in his Atlanta Braves uniform. Finally, a bona fide superstar to add to my mediocre collection of cards! It was like getting the Golden Ticket from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory!
Life lessons from baseball cards.
That early life lesson taught me to keep plugging away and never give up in pursuit of your goals. More on that in a minute.
Aaron finally eclipsed Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record on a cool April 1974 night in racially tense Atlanta, Georgia. I wasn’t old enough to know about all the hate mail and death threats Aaron and his family endured as he closed in on Ruth’s seemingly unassailable home run record—one of the last remaining monuments to Caucasian superiority in the major team sports. I just celebrated with baseball fans everywhere as we watched Aaron circle the bases on TV with two young white fans, equally exhilarated, serving as his unofficial escorts, before they were tackled and hauled off by security.
Only later did I learn that Aaron was barred from playing on his high school team because of the color of his skin and that as a teenage young professional in the southern minor leagues, he had to overcome endless racial taunts and a cross-handed batting grip (left hand above his right). But it was that athletic dyslexia that gave the righty, Aaron, tremendous forearm and wrist strength—deceptive power that allowed him to launch baseballs further than any slugger in the game’s history (except one).
Aaron retired after 23 seasons, but his home run record stood for three more decades until it was finally broken by Barry Bonds—a much larger man—later found to have taken anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) as he chased Aaron’s home run record. Even with modern training and PEDs, Bonds barely broke the record when he retired with 762 homers.
Aaron was gracious after being eclipsed by Bonds in 2007. “I move over and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement,” Aaron said. “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
To his credit, Bonds last week tweeted a thank you to Aaron, calling him “a trailblazer through adversity” and credited him for “setting an example for all of us African American ball players who came after you.”
Master of consistency
What many don’t realize about Aaron is that he not only had tremendous longevity, but was an outstanding fielder, a smart, speedy baserunner and a hitter who set a number of other all-time Major League records that remain on the books today:
- Most runs batted in (2,297).
- Most total bases (6,856).
- Most extra-base hits (1,477).
Another remarkable thing about Aaron’s body of work is that he only led the league in home runs four times during his stellar 23-year career. He just kept hitting 30 or 40 dingers per year for an incredibly long time. Same thing with his extraordinary career RBI total. He only led the league four or five times in that category as well—he just kept driving in 100+ runs per season year after year after year.
The mantra of consistency has served me well as a lifelong distance runner, triathlete and entrepreneur. You just have to set the bar high and keep grinding away, day after day after day.
Tom Seaver, another recently departed Hall of Famer, once said: “In baseball, my theory is to strive for consistency, not to worry about the numbers. If you dwell on statistics, you get shortsighted. If you aim for consistency, the numbers will be there at the end.”
“What I deeply admired and respected about [Aaron] is that each time he rounded those bases — an astonishing 755 trips home — he melted away more and more of the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a people and as a nation,” President Biden related last Friday. “For generations of athletes and civil rights advocates who followed, he showed how to be proud and be unafraid to stand up for what is right and just,” the President added.
We’ll miss you Hammerin’ Hank. The game was lucky to have you.
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