Henry Aaron is arguably our greatest living baseball player. Some would argue that this title belongs to 87-year-old Willie Mays. But Aaron’s lifetime statistics, which include a .305 batting average, 755 home runs, 2,297 runs batted in, and a staggering 21 seasons on an All-Star Game roster speak for themselves. At age 84, he is also speaking out, and using his Hall of Fame platform to connect with this new generation of activist athletes. At a ceremony for the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards in Atlanta, Aaron said that he would not visit the White House if an invitation came from the mouth of Donald Trump. “There’s nobody there I want to see,” said Aaron. The legendary “Hammerin’ Hank” was referring to the athletes in football, basketball, baseball, and football who have been refusing the traditional post-championship meetings at the White House on the grounds that they find this president too odious for even a photo op. Aaron’s was a statement of solidarity, as these players have faced invective from both the bully pulpit of the White House and an executive army of bots and trolls. But Henry Aaron was undeterred.
“I can understand where the players are coming from,” he said. “I really do. I understand they have their own issues and things they feel conviction about. They have a right to that, and I probably would be the same way, there’s no question about it.”
For those familiar with Aaron’s life and history, none of this is surprising. He was born in the Mobile, Alabama, of 1934. Then, Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues, his hero being none other than Jackie Robinson. Aaron’s Major League playing days stretched from 1954 to 1976, an era that spanned seismic changes in both the game of baseball and US society; an era that comprised the near-entirety of the black freedom struggle. During this tumultuous time, he was a foe of segregation and the day-to-day unequal treatment that black players too often received. He also served as a mentor for black players that came into the league.
In 1974, as Aaron attempted to surpass Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs, he was showered with racist hate mail and shockingly specific death threats. It was seen as an affront to white supremacy that anyone other than Babe Ruth might hold the home-run record. The Atlanta Journal even wrote a preemptive obituary of Aaron in case he was killed. Aaron could have remained silent. But instead he chose to go public with what he was facing and the pressures being put on his shoulders. By going public, he was in effect holding up a mirror to this country. In other words, in Aaron’s comment that in this White House, “There’s no one there that I want to see,” his stance is not only unsurprising. It is who he is.
I reached out to Howard Bryant, the author of the new book The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, who also penned the definitive biography on Aaron, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. He said to me, “Henry Aaron has always been a no-nonsense individual. More than that, he’s always been a citizen. He refused to play when the Milwaukee Braves proposed to move to Atlanta unless the seats were integrated in the new Fulton County Stadium. He refused to take America off the hook when it turned his greatest moment into a nightmare, and thus it’s completely unsurprising that he would have no interest in a man who embodies those very people who once made his life so difficult.”
Aaron sees something in this White House that feels altogether too familiar. He is standing up to it now as sure as he did decades ago. We should also recognize what is rank and familiar and wafting across the country from Washington, DC. The need to stand up, just like Hammerin’ Hank, has never been more pressing.