To succeed as a Black person in White America, we were always told by generations of our elders, it isn’t enough to be good at what you do, or better than good. You have to be as close as you could possibly get to perfection. Near or absolute greatness, if need be. Then—and only then—will you prove your worth, and perhaps your people’s worth, to white people, to the country, maybe even the world.
Only it wasn’t true. Not really.
This was by far the harshest lesson I learned from Henry Aaron, who died January 22 at age 86. I was in college when that lesson became apparent, during his early 1970s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time lifetime home-run record. When “Hammerin’ Hank” finally slammed the 715th homer to pass Ruth’s total on April 8, 1974, it was greeted with seemingly unilateral acclaim from everybody at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium that night and from every spectator, every right-thinking baseball fan, every American bearing witness in living rooms and dens from sea to shining sea.
Clips of that home run have permeated the airwaves and cyberspace in the hours and days since Aaron’s death. Commentators and eulogists now remember it as a paradigm of the “feel-good story,” a moment of growth and illumination for America in its seemingly endless struggle with race, as if all that hate mail, all those death threats, all the baseline white-supremacist vitriol that came Aaron’s way and menaced him, his family and friends had never happened—all swept into oblivion, something to be forgotten and filed away.
But I didn’t forget it, and neither could any person-of-color alive and alert at the time. Rather than triumph or satisfaction, all Aaron could feel at the time was relief, as though “the weight of a stove” had been taken off his shoulders. So… this was what success looked like?
As with every Black baseball player who came to the majors in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s bruising breakthrough, Henry Aaron, barely out of his teens when he signed with the then-Milwaukee Braves in 1954, made his way through a gauntlet of racial epithets, unapologetic contempt, and unrelenting abuse from both the dugouts and stands of ballparks throughout an American South clinging to Jim Crow customs, manners, and laws. His circumspect manner wouldn’t allow him to show anger during this initiation; his pride wouldn’t allow him to submit to pressure. If there was any doubt that he belonged in the company of the best of this baseball trade, he would let his skills do the talking.
Two years in the minors gave way to a rookie season with the Braves in 1956. A year later, he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player and a World Series champion. No less an iconic contemporary than Mickey Mantle once declared Aaron “the best ballplayer of my era,” adding that he “has never received the credit he’s due.”
Sandy Koufax, the greatest left-handed pitcher of his era, conceded that “Bad Henry” was the only hitter in either league for whom he never had a “plan” for striking out. “Make sure no one’s on [base] when he hits it out” was, according to George Will—in the opening of the “Dear Hank Aaron” chapter in Ken Burns’s Baseball, “Ninth Inning: Home”—the closest any Dodger pitcher had to a strategy for pitching to Aaron. The latter’s all-time 2,297 runs-batted-in record tells you how often that plan worked.
One would have thought, in short, that even without the grail of 715 home runs, that Aaron, through two decades of steady, mostly quiet brilliance, had nothing to prove to any white person as to his worth, his esteem, his stature as a man and a ballplayer.
Yet, by 1973, as Aaron “closed in” (as the media often put it) on Ruth, the assaults on his dignity, his manhood, his skin color were a matter of public record. And even those in his corner, broadcasters, sportswriters and other professional spectators, were wondering if Aaron was too cool, too self-contained to overcome the pressure—as if he’d never had to do that before, ever, in his career. Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, the penultimate volume in his chronicle of the late-20th century rise of the American political right, recalls how even beyond the blatant and graphic racial taunts, there were insinuations on sports talk radio that Aaron “could not possibly have beaten a white man without sneaky unfair advantages (livelier balls, more regular season games, etc.), just like those affirmative action hires.”
What made Henry Aaron a hero, ultimately, weren’t all those records but the abiding grace and dignity with which he carried himself before, during, and long after that “feel good” night. His stature as a player, in hindsight, grew and deepened in collective memory, especially during the dread “steroid era” at the century’s hinge that saw Aaron’s lifetime 755 home runs eclipsed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, a Black slugger whose truculence, swagger, and use of performance-enhancing chemicals made him in the public mind antimatter to the now universally beloved Aaron.
To this day, sports pundits and fans still regard Aaron as the “true home run king” at Bonds’s expense. To Harry Edwards, the sociologist who spurred the 1968 Olympics boycott and protests by Black athletes, Bonds was now the “record-holder” while Aaron remained “the standard of excellence.”
No one would question that latter assessment. But there were many who once did. Henry Aaron is and should be cherished for the player and person he was. But the shabby, egregious treatment he endured—and overcame—should never be forgotten. And can’t be. Its sources, as we’ve been lately, grimly reminded, are still with us.