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Hank Aaron: mourning the life of a ballplayer and true gentleman

The loss of Hank Aaron last week is a hard one for the MLB community. A look back on the storied legacy of an inspirational figure. 

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

Over the last twelve months the baseball community has (virtually) come together to mourn the loss of many impactful and great players, coaches, and managers. It’s been a rough-go, partly because of untimely and premature deaths due to COVID, and partly because many players who left a major impact on the game in the ‘60s and ‘70s are reaching old age, their life at its natural end.

Last week the baseball community, and humanity at-large, lost an impactful and historic figure when Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron passed away at the age of 86. Known throughout the game as a legend, Aaron was always known as a thoughtful, humble, and kind man. This from someone who faced the nastiness of society day-in-and-day-out throughout most of his career.

Aaron defied the odds as both a ballplayer and a man; he never got into any altercations with racist fans, nor had any words or incidents in the public view. He conducted himself with grace and class throughout his life in the public’s eye.

Having started his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues, Aaron was well-aware of the awful tradition of segregated baseball. Aaron knocked the cover off the ball in his mere 100-days with the Indianapolis clowns before getting two offers, one from the New York Giants and one from the Braves.

Aaron of course took the Braves’ contract, and worked his way through the minors, working his way onto the Major League roster in 1954.

He was a popular player in baseball not long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and was a star on the Milwaukee Braves before most of the rest of the league had one Black ballplayer on their roster.

Aaron was thrust into the Deep South when the Braves moved, a Black face, and a Black star, in a largely segregated community. While Aaron is known for handling himself with dignity, he was unable to enjoy his career and accomplishments the way he ought to have been able to celebrate them. As Hank got closer and closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s record, instead of being able to enjoy the attention and the ride to legendary status, he was facing death threats merely because of the color of his skin. Taking away his ability to relish his own accomplishments is something undoubtedly hurt Aaron, and even so, he never approach others with a chip on his shoulder.

Aaron is of course most known as the man who broke Babe Ruth’s record. A feat both on the field, and off of it, as Aaron experienced virulent racism before, during, and after his quest to overtake The Babe. Like many Southern Black ballplayers, Aaron grew up in a poor family, with a lack of resources to afford sufficient equipment, coaching, or much formal baseball training. Still, raw talent and ambition finds a way.

Aaron is a no-doubt, inner-circle, one-of-the-greatest-players-to-ever-play-the-game type of Hall of Famer. He of course holds second place for the most home runs ever in MLB history, having totaled two dozen or more home runs over the course of 18 consecutive seasons.

He holds the all-time record for total bases and RBIs, and earned his way to 25 All Star Games, two batting titles, three Gold Gloves, and eight top-five MVP finishes, including one NL MVP Award. He also finished his career top-five in hits.

Hammerin’ Hank’s earned accolades go on-and-on, including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His impact on the game as a competitor and as an ambassador will have lasting positive effects. Aaron served as an inspiration to young players of all colors and backgrounds, with the way he conducted himself on-and-off the field an exemplary example of how to act like a true gentleman.

Aaron will be sorely missed and we send our condolences to his family and friends.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano