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Remembering Hank Aaron, the home-run king

<h6>Chris Evans / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
Chris Evans / Wikimedia Commons

It is a wet and windy evening in Atlanta, Ga., on April 8, 1974, a few minutes after 8 p.m. At Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, there are no outs in the fourth inning of a 3–1 game, with the Los Angeles Dodgers leading the hometown Braves. Hank Aaron steps up to the plate, nonchalantly swinging his bat like a fly swatter in front of him.

Aaron watches the first pitch from Al Downing. The count is one ball and no strikes — a hitter’s count. Darrell Evans is on first base, having reached on an error by the shortstop, Bill Russell, to his left side. Baseball history happens next. Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers play caller, makes the call:

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“One ball and no strikes. Aaron waiting. The outfielders are deep and straightaway. Fastball — is a high drive to deep center field! Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!”

Scully sits in silence for a long time. He listens to the crowd of 53,775 roar. Hank Aaron has just hit his 715th career home run, passing the all-time record Babe Ruth had held since 1935. Scully picks back up:

“What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. He was met at home plate by not only every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother. He threw his arms around his father, and as he left the home plate area, his mother came running across the grass, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him for all he was worth.”

Henry “Hank” Aaron, an honorary Princeton alumnus, died on Jan. 22 at 86. By all measures, he was one of the greatest to ever play baseball, and he was a monumental force in moving the game toward racial equality.

Even after decades of home run fever, with the steroid boom in the 1990s and 2000s and the juiced ball in recent seasons, Aaron’s batting statistics remain extraordinary. In MLB history, he has the most runs batted in (2,273), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). Cardinals legend Stan Musial ranks second all-time in total bases — and he finished 722 behind Aaron. Aaron finished third all-time in hits (3,771) and is the only player to hit for 700 home runs and 3,000 hits.

Aaron’s longevity was nearly unmatched: he played for 23 seasons, finished second all-time in at-bats (12,364), and holds the record for most All-Star game selections (25, being selected to multiple All-Star games in 1959–62). He is one of four players to have 17 seasons of more than 150 hits, one of two to have 15 seasons of more than 30 home runs, and the only player to have eight seasons of more than 40 home runs.

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After he broke Ruth’s record in 1974, Aaron hit 40 more home runs before retiring, finishing his career with 755. This record was broken in 2007 by Barry Bonds, who finished his career with 762 home runs, though many do not recognize Bonds’ record for his use of performance-enhancing drugs. To many, Aaron remains the home run king.

After his career, Aaron became one of the best-loved athletes in sports. He received an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 2011, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and was named a Georgia Trustee by the Georgia Historical Society in 2010. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. In 1999, the MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, given each year to the best hitter in the American and National Leagues.

“Henry Aaron was not simply one of the most extraordinary athletes of the 20th century, although he was surely that,” said Shirley M. Tilghman, who was president of the University in 2011 and awarded Aaron his honorary doctorate, in an email to the Daily Princetonian. “He conducted his life both inside and outside baseball with immense integrity, dignity, and grace in the face of rampant racism. His breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record should have been a moment of unfettered celebration. Instead, he faced attacks from those who thought a black man should not hold such a record. Aaron honored Princeton by allowing us to honor his life of courage and grit, in addition to his amazing baseball prowess.”

“He is, of course, known as the home run king, but he was so much more,” said Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley in an email to the Daily Princetonian, “He was a great all-around player whose statistics in all categories rank at or near the top of all players. What is even more important is his link to history and what he had to endure in terms of hatred and racism.”

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Brutal racial vitriol was directed at Aaron before the 1974 season. Baseball fans believed that Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs was sacred, and that it would be heretical for a black man to break that record.

Aaron ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs — one short of the record — and said that his only fear was that he would not live to see the 1974 season. He got hate mail and death threats every day. He was reported to have received 930,000 pieces of hate mail during both the 1973 season and the following off-season.

“Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of 39, takes a moonwalk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport,” wrote William Leggett in Sports Illustrated before the 1974 season, “or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?”

But Aaron was never fazed. He kept walking up to the plate, and he kept hitting home runs. He hit the 714th home run, on his first swing of the 1974 season. Then he hit his 715th home run. When he rounded the bases on that cold Atlanta night — Atlanta Stadium on its feet, fans rushing the field, broadcast on national television — he cracked a smile. However, on his next at-bat in that game, a groundout to third base, he stood in the batter’s box just as he had every other time. Just as all other 12,363 at-bats, he circled his bat above his head, stared down the pitcher with a stony glare, and tried to put bat to ball.

“My motto was always to keep swinging,” he said. “Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”

Aaron never stopped playing his game for a quarter of a century. His practicality and tenacity in the face of racial vitriol served as an inspiration for marginalized people across America. He was an icon that blazed a trail for Black athletes for generations after him. He was one of the greatest to ever play — dependable, powerful, and beautiful. He was an image for racial equality in the United States.

“He was always a voice of calm and reason,” said Bradley, “Hank Aaron was a great player, but he was an even better man. He will be missed by all.”

In an interview for The New York Times after his record-breaking home run, he said it was simple.

“I have never gone out on a ball field and given less than my level best,” he said. “When I hit it tonight, all I thought about was that I wanted to hit all the bases.”

Through it all, Hank Aaron — the home run king — just kept swinging.

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