He still has – and likely will for a long time have – the legitimate record for most home runs in a career. An astounding 755 and he never hit more than 47 in any one season. Across 23 seasons he was the soul of consistency. All those home runs, a career batting average of .305, he led the league in RBI’s four times and averaged 113 runs batted in over a long, long career. He made it to the post season three times and hit .393. He had all the tools – hit for power, hit for average, run, throw and field his position. The complete package. The real deal.
Throwing a fastball buy him, the pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” He was that good.
Tonight in Atlanta the Braves will remember that cold spring evening 40 years ago today when he broke the most storied record in baseball, the Babe’s record that is now his record. Oh, Bonds may have his name first in the record book, but we all know that story. The real record – no asterisk – is his and he’ll be there tonight like he has always been there since 1954 – dignified, a little reserved, elegant, patient, always, always the very personification of professional.
When Howard Bryant wrote his biography he called him “the last hero” and it’s a fitting title. He came of age in the old Negro Leagues, then played in Milwaukee, then Atlanta and finally back to Wisconsin. His life and career traced the arc of our society’s racial transformation; a sad and vital journey still not finished. His life covered all the distance from his native Alabama, the home, as Dr. King famously of it in 1963, of “vicious racists” and a governor “his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” to the Hall of Fame.
While he marched on overtaking the Babe’s record in 1974 the death threats piled up. Hard to believe that a great baseball player needed guards to protect him from those who both denied his greatness and his manhood. “Three decades later it still pained him,” Bryant writes, to recall “how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back.” It was one of the game’s worst moments, made good only by his grace and greatness.
His was a quiet and oh-so-effective example that told racism it would eventually always strike out. He put up with all the downside of stardom and celebrity, the pressure and pain of a black man quietly, and always with great dignity, making it known that he was the best that there ever was. He missed much of the really big money in the game, but never played for the glory or gain, but for the love.
He was the first player, well Willie too, that I really started to care about. I became a Braves fan because of him and a Giants fan because of the Say Hey Kid.
When he turned 75 a few years ago they threw a big party for him in Atlanta. Bill Clinton came. Barack Obama had just been elected and he said he was “thrilled” that a young black man was in the White House. Not many heroes in sports any more. Maybe too much money and too many egos. Tonight in Atlanta one of the heroes – maybe the last in the greatest game – will be back on the green grass that was his stage.
On this day 40 years ago he made history, but Henry Aaron will always be a genuine American hero.