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Hank Aaron dead at 86: Baseball's forever home run king was a true American hero

Hammerin’ Hank reigned in an age when baseball record-breakers inspired awe, rather than aroused suspicion.
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On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves used his mighty right-handed swing to send a towering drive into the left-center-field bullpen in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and surpass Babe Ruth as Major League Baseball’s all-time home run king.

Aaron’s blast, No. 715 in his illustrious 23-year career, remains the most significant home run in baseball history. Aaron, who died on Friday at 86, went on to hit 40 more home runs before retiring. Three decades later, Barry Bonds would “break” Aaron’s record, only to be revealed later as one of the many baseball players who allegedly succumbed to the allure of performance-enhancing drugs.

I was one of many Black Americans celebrating Aaron’s achievement that night, the joyful noise in my family’s Brooklyn living room drowning out Curt Gowdy’s play-by-play.

Aaron's 715th homer came at a time when the Braves legend was receiving stacks of hate mail and death threats from those who did not want to see a Black man stand above Ruth and every other slugger in baseball lore.

But Aaron persevered with the class he always displayed, on the field and off. So when he launched that history-making home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Al Downing in a game televised nationally on NBC, Aaron brought American fans together in a way that few sporting events ever have.

I was one of many Black Americans celebrating Aaron’s achievement that night, the joyful noise in my family’s Brooklyn living room drowning out Curt Gowdy’s play-by-play account and the ovation in the stadium. Never will we forget the sight of two young white men running onto the field before Aaron could touch third base — not to do him harm, but to give him appreciative pats on the back before his teammates could embrace him at home plate.

Major League Baseball had no Black players until Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. By 1974, even racist baseball fans had to admit that Hammerin’ Hank had outslugged The Babe fair and square.

Aaron personified athletic excellence and quiet dignity, which made him a true sports hero. He reigned in an age when baseball record-breakers inspired awe, rather than aroused suspicion. We marveled at the strength in Aaron’s hands and wrists that allowed him to quickly turn around any fastball and send it soaring over an outfield wall.

No one insinuated then or since that Aaron attained his all-time records, which included 2,297 runs batted in and 6,856 total bases, through anything other than hard work and a commitment to developing his athletic gifts.

Although baseball lists Aaron’s 755 home runs as second to Bonds’s 762 on the all-time list, that is just an entry in a record book. Aaron’s quarter-century in professional baseball — from the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues in 1951 to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976 — was blissfully free of controversy. The same can't be said of Bonds, however.

Indeed, comparing the two men highlights a sad evolution for America’s pastime. Bonds’ body changed unnaturally from the late 1990s to 2007, the year he surpassed Aaron in home runs. Formerly a sleek star with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonds became a hulking San Francisco Giant. His yearly home run totals skyrocketed after he turned 35, an age at which an athlete’s skills normally show erosion. Such suspicion led to a grand jury case in 2003 in which Bonds testified that he did not knowingly use steroids developed by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, known as Balco. Instead, he claimed he thought what he was ingesting was flaxseed oil.

Controversy still follows Bonds like a shadow. That is why he has not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. If he ever is, his plaque would almost assuredly include language about the performance-enhancing drugs he is widely believed to have used, intentionally or not.

Aaron, on the other hand, earned 97.8 percent of the vote as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982. How 2.2 percent of the voters didn’t vote for him was the only controversy. Perhaps he was not a unanimous choice because none of the white stars he had eclipsed received 100 percent of the vote.

The impressive array of statistics Aaron compiled will always be trusted. They will always stand the test of time. It is entirely appropriate that his surname begins with two As, for any conversation about the greatest home run hitters in baseball history should begin with Hank Aaron.