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Hank Aaron had grace. Hank Aaron had power. Hank Aaron had humility.
Aaron, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, has died at the age of 86. He is best known for chasing down Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, and fighting racist threats and massive amounts of hate mail.
He got the record, of course. He went right past Ruth’s 714 homers, after being stuck at 713 for an entire offseason, and got all the way to 755. But for all the things Aaron did have, there is one thing he doesn’t have anymore.
The home run record.
He held that record, the most cherished record in all of sports — maybe after the Olympics 100-meter dash — for more than 33 years, from April 8, 1974 until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.
That’s a hard thing to reconcile today.
Records are broken. It happens. But Aaron should have died with that record. He grew up in poverty in Mobile, Ala., went on to play briefly in the Negro Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. And for his greatest professional achievement, he had to overcome so much.
It’s just sad that he lost that record because Bonds, the likely steroid cheat, puffed up in the latter part of his career and started cranking more and bigger home runs until he got to 762.
Aaron earned that record the hard way, without cheating. And he should have it now, unless you think it belongs to Josh Gibson, who legend says hit close to 800 homers in the Negro Leagues.
Aaron or Gibson, yes. Bonds, no.
A few years ago, Aaron did an interview with Craig Melvin on NBC. Melvin asked him what he’d like to be remembered for, and Aaron said this:
“I would just like to be remembered as someone that God gave him the talent to play this game and he did everything humanly possible to make the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’’
So Aaron doesn’t have the home run record anymore. But the Guinness World Records website says he still holds the record for Most Fan Mail Received in One Year.
“The highest confirmed volume of mail received by any private citizen in one year is 900,000 letters by the baseball star Hank Aaron (USA), reported by the U.S. Postal Department in June 1974. About a third were letters of hate engendered after bettering Babe Ruth’s career record for ‘home runs.’ ’’
Bonds was a great player, too, but there was sad irony in the way he took Aaron’s record. Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime close friend of Aaron’s, considered Aaron his hero.
Baseball was in trouble. The World Series was canceled in 1994 due to labor strife. Even when the game came back, the fans did not. So, Selig looked the other way as the steroid era began. A few years later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had a home run chase that lit the country up and brought the fans back.
Steroids were rampant in the game. Selig didn’t stop it since they saved his sport. It’s a decision that would eventually haunt Selig.
That era was still going all the way through Bonds’ days, though it was never officially determined that he took steroids. Use your own judgment. By the time he was approaching Aaron’s record in 2007, fans were booing, Aaron tried to stay out of the discussion, and Selig didn’t attend Bonds’ games.
Selig had let his friend lose the most-cherished record in baseball.
When Bonds broke the record, Selig issued a statement: “I congratulate Barry Bonds for establishing a new career home run record. Barry’s achievement is noteworthy and remarkable. . .While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves toward resolution, today is a day for congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement.’’
Selig could not help but take that shot at Bonds.
Aaron, meanwhile, had videotaped a congratulations to Bonds that played on the San Francisco scoreboard that night. Bonds then snapped at reporters for asking negative questions, saying that his record was not tainted.
Two years ago, Aaron said that Bonds deserves the record. In 2009, he told a group of reporters surrounding the Hall of Fame ceremony that he felt the records from the steroid era should have an asterisk next to them, so people would understand why those records were broken.
There are too many racial angles to this story to leave out, starting with Josh Gibson. Not only did Aaron have to start his career in the Negro Leagues, but he also had to run down the great white baseball hero in Ruth. Despite the hate mail, Aaron was accepted by white fans, mostly through his grace and consistency.
Despite passing Ruth’s home run total, Aaron never quite reached as high as Ruth’s legacy. Bonds had a much more confrontational style, which made him less accepted.
Aaron started his major league career with the Milwaukee Braves, who then moved to Atlanta, where he spent most of his career. At the end, Selig wanted him back in Milwaukee, so he played for the Milwaukee Brewers.
How did Aaron say he wanted to be remembered? God gave him the talent, and he did everything possible to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
Aaron will be remembered just the way he wanted.