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Hank Aaron remembered for 'regal presence,' crusade for equality

"He never forgot the ugly side of America that he confronted and triumphed over. But it never turned him bitter," said sportscaster Bob Costas.
Image: Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves swings at the ball.Focus On Sport / Getty Images file

The Dodgers left-hander Al Downing's first pitch to Hank Aaron in the bottom of the fourth inning bounced in the dirt, drawing loud boos from the 53,775 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

"Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game," legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said during that April 8, 1974, telecast. Downing's next pitch, a fastball, sailed over the left-center stadium wall as Dodgers left-fielder Bill Buckner leaped in vain.

"What a marvelous moment for baseball. ... A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol," said Scully after Aaron crossed home plate.

The two-run blast that night, No. 715 for Aaron, pushed him past Babe Ruth for career homers and made the player nicknamed The Hammer the undisputed king in that category. Aaron finished his career with 755 career homers.

"He was one of the greatest, no doubt about that," Downing said Friday after learning of Aaron's death.

Aaron, 86, died "peacefully in his sleep," the Atlanta Braves said in a statement Friday.

"I'm sad to hear about this. There’s a lot of people that feel the same way I feel today," Downing said. "Geez, can it get any worse?"

Aaron is the third baseball Hall of Famer to die this year, following pitcher Don Sutton and long-time Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Last year, seven Hall of Fame players died: Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver and knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro.

While any Cooperstown inductee breathes rarefied air, Aaron "transcended baseball," given the adversity he faced in his pursuit of Babe Ruth's record, and more importantly, for the way he carried himself on and off the field throughout his life, said Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Costas.

That included the stretch of his career in the 1960s played against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

"What Aaron endured, and how he persevered through it, not just with his greatness as a player, but with his dignity and focus as a person, is remarkable," said Costas, a former longtime NBC sportscaster and current MLB Network talent. "He’s a Mount Rushmore-level player, but the social significance of it, and his qualities as a person, take him to another place."

Aaron was born in Alabama in 1934, when the South was still segregated. Before his major-league debut in 1954, Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns.

"A lot of people don't know that Henry Aaron played for the Clowns. It is an awakening for them," said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "But Aaron went on to become an icon, one of the greatest to come out of the Negro Leagues. I always delight in that."

Kendrick underscored Aaron's civil rights involvement, calling him a man who devoted his life to "the betterment of others."

"He was on a crusade to seek equality for all citizens, but especially those like him," Kendrick said. "This one hurts."

When Downing was a young pitcher with the Yankees early in his career, he said his first interaction with Aaron left an indelible mark. Downing said he was introduced to Aaron by Yankee teammate and catcher Elston Howard, the Yankees' first Black player.

"The first time I really had any personal contact with Mr. Aaron was in 1964," Downing said. "We go to spring training and we’re playing the Braves. Henry Aaron comes over and Howard says, ‘Hank, this is the kid I was telling you about.’ And without breaking stride, Hank says, ‘Hey young man. It’s so nice to see you up here. You ever have anything you want to know about, any advice you need, just call me and talk to me any time you’d like.’

"I never forgot those words," said Downing, 79.

Both Downing and Costas marveled at the way Aaron remained humble and displayed humility throughout his playing days and long after he retired.

"Almost a regal presence," Downing said.

"By his nature as a person, he was not someone who sought the spotlight," Costas said. "He was a genuinely humble person. Kind. Welcoming. Respectful. Very generous in his assessment of other players. He never forgot the ugly side of America that he confronted and triumphed over. But it never turned him bitter."

Aaron would hold the career home run record for over 30 years before Giants slugger Barry Bonds socked career number 756 in 2007. Because Bonds had performance-enhancing drug links during his playing career, many baseball purists still view Aaron as the home run king.

The night Bonds broke Aaron's record in San Francisco, Hammerin' Hank sent a video congratulating Bonds' achievement. If Aaron was at odds with the controversy surrounding Bonds and the debate about whether Bonds' record is tainted, Aaron never showed it.

Aaron "was willing to make a video, played in the immediate aftermath of Bonds hitting No. 756. That was another mark of Aaron's graciousness," Costas said. "And although never verbalized this, I think he was more than comfortable with the idea that people ‘got it.’ People understood. He was a genuinely great man, and a genuinely great ballplayer."