Reflecting on the life and legacy of Hank Aaron
This post features many of the thoughts I shared on the Hank Aaron tribute episode of From The Diamond. My guests included Brian Jordan, Dale Murphy, and Tom House. You can hear that episode here. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud and Stitcher.
What words are sufficient following the loss of an icon – not only in sports, but in life?
Hank Aaron’s baseball career was filled with statistical accomplishment, but that’s not all his legacy will be measured by. His resilience, courage, and perseverance in the face of prejudice, racism, and the hatred he encountered on the way to breaking the all-time home run record, as well as the character he displayed throughout, should be recognized and celebrated as much as anything he did on a baseball field.
Hank Aaron was a beacon – a shining example for others to follow in times of strife, or simply aspire to in general.
He was more than an athlete. He was a symbol of excellence in life. He was devoted to helping others, to giving back, to paying it forward. Aaron was a rare combination of the highest character qualities and the height of athletic achievement.
Hank Aaron was, quite simply, an icon.
On the rare occasions I interacted with Mr. Aaron, I was keenly aware that I was in the presence of someone who was revered. It was almost regal, the respect and the awe that filled the room. But then Hank began to speak, to connect with people, and you experienced the grace and humility with which he lived his life. That warmth was incredible.
Shaking Hank Aaron’s hand, even long after his playing career, I immediately understood the strength that powered him through a 23-year career. His hand surrounded mine, and I was left to think how much those hands built throughout his life. And I also thought about the symbolism of a handshake and all it signifies – all Hank Aaron signified. I was awestruck.
And then there are the statistics…
The "Home Run King" for over three decades, with 755 of those.
He was a lifetime .305 hitter across 3,298 games played – winning two batting titles.
He amassed 3,771 hits, 624 doubles, 98 triples, and even stole 240 bases.
Aaron is still baseball’s RBI-leader, with 2,297.
He remains the all-time leader in total bases – with 6,856.
It’s almost impossible to fathom that a slugger like that wouldn’t be prone to striking out, but Hank Aaron finished his career with more walks than strikeouts – 1,402 to 1,383. And what’s more, he never fanned more than 100 times in a single season.
Somehow, Aaron was only named Most Valuable Player once, but he picked a great year for it. He hit a pennant-winning home run and then led the Braves to a World Series Championship over the Yankees in 1957. Aaron batted .393 with three homers and seven RBI in the seven-game series.
And of course, there's stat du jour for Aaron's decades of dominance. If you take away those 755 career home runs, Aaron would still have more than 3,000 career hits.
I decided to take that stat a step further:
We could spend days combing through Aaron's statistics, but that’s just a few that jumped off the page to me.
From Mobile, AL, Aaron’s professional baseball career began as a shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues in 1952, quickly took him to the major leagues with Milwaukee in 1954, and eventually led him to a place in Cooperstown in 1982.
When Aaron retired after the 1976 season, he was the last man who played in the Negro Leagues still active in MLB. He played with and against many of the all-time greats of the game. Teaming with Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro, while squaring off with Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, and Mickey Mantle just to name a few.
Aaron wore out his Hall of Fame contemporaries, enjoying some of his greatest success against the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Steve Carlton among others.
Perhaps no Aaron quote provided more context for that success than this one:
“The pitcher has got only a ball. I've got a bat. So, the percentage in weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.”
Aaron proved that point time and again.
We will grieve the loss of Hank Aaron while reflecting on the career, the life, the impact, and the lasting legacy of one of the greatest men we’ll ever know. More than being a great athlete, Hank Aaron transcended sports and lived a life of grace few achieve.
And that is worth celebrating.