Black History Month: Home Run King Hank Aaron turns 75 today

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Hank Aaron hitting #715 in April, 1974

Hank Aaron hitting #715 in April, 1974

That’s right, I said it: Hank Aaron is still the Home Run King, and today is his 75th birthday.  Tonight there will be a big party in Atlanta to celebrate, and President Clinton and Dave Winfield are among the scheduled attendees.  I hope President Obama finds a way to honor one of the greatest living Americans.  President Carter was Governor of Georgia and was present for Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th homer, incidentally, as opposed to that rat Bowie Kuhn (who was the Commissioner at the time!).

As detailed in his excellent autobiography, I Had A Hammer, Aaron suffered racism from his earliest days in professional baseball, beginning with integrating the South Atlantic League (with two other players) on the Jacksonville team and through breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs over 20 years later.

He couldn’t stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants and had epithets slung at him in every park.  In the 70s as he approached the Babe’s record, he received massive amounts of hate mail including many death threats.  His whole family was under FBI protection when he broke the record.

The letters he received are stored in his attic, and in the American consciousness.

I have seen some of them, and they would have scared anyone.  But Henry Aaron just kept on slugging his way into history.  If America celebrates Babe Ruth with an adjective, a candy bar, pictures everywhere, slogans like “the House that Ruth Built,” what is Hank Aaron’s legacy? Babe Ruth was a great baseball player, but what Hank Aaron’s life tells us is to keep going forward, don’t let anyone stop you.  I think he set a great example for all of us.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat interview with Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis Jr. stated that black athletes who integrated major sports helped pave the way for President Obama’s election.  Hank’s interview was heavy and uncharacteristically emotional:

“So when Aaron was asked about Tuesday’s inauguration of Obama as the country’s 44th president, Aaron choked back tears and struggled for words.

“I am just overwhelmed. Every time I see him on television, I just smile because he represents me. No matter how I look at it, he’s me.

Aaron was among the early influx of black players to follow Jackie Robinson, breaking in to the majors in 1954, a month before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that opened the way for school integration.

Aaron’s career paralleled some of the key moments in the civil rights movement — from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963 to the founding in February 1976 of Black History Month.

“It’s just something you look back on and you think about people like Dr. King, the civil rights workers who made remarks about people being judged by their character rather than their color,” Aaron said.

With Obama’s inauguration, Aaron said, “This is becoming reality. For the first time you can see this country becoming the kind of country that we all are very proud of.”

I hope that Hank Aaron has a great birthday and that I am just one of many people who will show their appreciation for his accomplishments and his character.

Update: Hank Aaron cries watching another #44 on election night.

Hank Aaron in the Sporting News discussing his 75th birthday.

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