There’s a lot to learn from “Hammerin’” Hank

Rob Hoffman
8 min readJan 28, 2021

It’s hard induct Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling, when you see what the gold standard was.

I’m sometimes asked why when it comes to the “Big Man” upstairs why I’m not much of a believer. I often say that I want to believe, because who wouldn’t? It’s hard though to be a true believer in any deity who would see fit to take from us Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Henry Aaron while leaving Curt Schilling and Tom Brady to walk the planet unscathed. In fact, perhaps it would be more revealing for me to state that while the book is still out on whether I have faith in an almighty creator, I can at the very least proclaim that I”m not always a big fan of his handiwork.

This past week, one of baseball’s immortals, and the true and legitimate all-time home-run king, “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron, a son of the segregated South, born in 1934, went on to be one of the greatest and most inspirational athletes of the 20th century. Growing up in a house dedicated to the greatness of WIllie Mays and the New York Giants, Henry Aaron didn’t always get his due. My father was a die-hard Giants fan going back to the days of “King” Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott. It’s not like he or my brother, another Willie Mays devotee didn’t like Aaron or respect his considerable skills, it’s just that they believed Willie to have been the better player. Their rivalry as to who was the better player will most likely never be settled, but suffice to say, they were both legends, and now only Mays is left.

All smiles after blasting his record 715th home-run and eclipsing the great Babe Ruth, Aaron had a lot on his mind which included above all, his personal safety. (Getty Images)

Hank Aaron was a bedrock of consistency throughout his lengthy career, hitting 30 or more home runs 15 times, knocking in 100 runs 11 times, and scoring 100 runs or more in a season a whopping 15 times. If you’re not a baseball fan and these numbers don’t hold any value for you, think about it this way. Imagine if Saturday Night Live put on 20 skits and 15 of them were laugh out loud, hysterically funny, then you’d understand the consistency of Henry Aaron. When Aaron retired in 1976 at the age of 42, he had hit a then major league record 755 home runs. He did it without steroids as well, something Willie Mays’ godson Barry Bonds failed to achieve. That’s not to say that Aaron didn’t have his critics. Fans of Willie Mays, the player many believed would break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs played most of his prime in Candlestick Park in San Francisco on what was easily the most windy and un-home run friendly spot in all of the Bay area. These critics pointed out that Aaron on the other hand played much of his career in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, a baseball park so conducive to home run hitting that it was dubbed “The Launching Pad” due to the prodigious amounts of home runs that were swatted there.

Of course the argument regarding Aaron’s home run title has little to do with baseball stadium engineering and architecture and much more to do with race. Those who wished to cover their racism in baseball acumen claimed that Ruth would have easily hit more home runs had he not come up as a pitcher (and a great pitcher at that) in the early years of his career. Aaron heard the complaints and basically shrugged his shoulders at the baseball purists. There was actually something far more sinister taking place in 1974 that was occupying his mind.

It’s not that we disliked “Hammerin’ Hank” in our house, we just leaned towards the “Say Hey” kid. I mean, did Hank Aaron ever play stickball with the kids outside County Stadium in Milwaukee when he was a rookie? (Getty Images)

At the end of the 1973 baseball season, Hank Aaron had 713 home runs, one shy of the immortal Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714. The numeral 714 stood as perhaps the most iconic in all of sports. It’s existence seemed to signify the greatness and grandeur of “the Babe.” His 714 home runs were often seen as an unassailable record, and it marked Ruth’s spot as not only the greatest player of all time, but its most popular and colorful character. Therefore having Aaron, a man of quiet dignity, and a man of color, break this exalted record, was too much for the racist amongs us to handle. As the 1973 season ended, and particularly when opening day for the 1974 season was approaching, Aaron began to receive death threats through the mail. They often began with the ignominious salutation: “Dear N_____.” Then it got ugly. This wasn’t 1947, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier at a time when even Martin Luther King Jr., wasn’t on the scene. This was at a time when all of the nation’s professional sports, and universities had been integrated, and the federal government had outlawed and shown a willingness to enforce anti-segregation laws. Still, you can’t legislate against hate.

Ironically, Aaron would use a logic that many who support the Black Lives Matter movement have attempted to utilize in order to explain what it is they are trying to achieve. Black Lives Matter advocates have explained that supporting “black lives” doesn’t mean threatening white lives. Aaron would try to explain to those fans who didn’t seem capable of living in a world where Babe Ruth was no longer the all-time home run king that he wasn’t trying to tear down Babe Ruth, he was simply attempting to promote Henry Aaron.

He may have been the greatest to ever play the game, and his life story is still riveting, but he was hardly without sin, and it would have been interesting to see what his reaction would have been had he lived to see Henry Aaron break his record. (Getty Images)

Coincidently, Aaron’s passing came just before the Hall of Fame announced its newest inductees for 2021. Interestingly, the baseball sportswriters who do the voting failed to elect anybody, and there will be no new entrants this year. Incredibly, three of the most dominant players of the last 50 years were on the ballot, but none could garner the majority necessary for entrance into the Hall. How did this occur? Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling, all outstanding players, failed to achieve a majority of votes from the baseball sportswriters due to character related flaws. Bonds and Clemens are widely assumed to have been chronic abusers of performance enhancing drugs, while Schilling has produced, how shall I put this, a controversial Twitter account.

At first glance, it would seem silly to ask sportswriters to be the moral guardians of the Hall of Fame. Why should they sit in judgement of these players when there were no penalties waged against them while they played? Secondly, if character really matters that much, then shouldn’t we have taken another look at those baseball immortals who may not have been racially woke? Babe Ruth used to get baited by opponents from their dugout who teased Ruth that he was black. It drove Ruth crazy, and almost brought him to blows with several players from other teams. Cap Anson, arguably the best player in Major League Baseball pre-1900, spearheaded the movement to unofficially make it impossible for African-American players to play in the major leagues since they were taking a lot of the jobs away from the white players. Is what Bonds and/or Clemens did, something many players did during the 1990s and early 2000s, that much worse than excluding an entire section of society from participating in their chosen profession because of their skin color?

Anson looked more like he was auditioning for a barbershop quartet than playing baseball. I always suspected though groups were racist. (Getty Images)

As for Schilling, as heinous as I or others may find his tweeted opinions supporting the January 6th terrorist insurrection, or any of his other right-wing fanatic pronouncements, should that impact his accomplishments on the baseball field? He was a fierce competitor, one of the best clutch, big-game pitchers of the past 50 years, according to most accounts an excellent teammate, as well as being respectful towards his rivals and friendly with the fans. Should he be kept out of the Hall for his political beliefs when plenty of players in the Hall did not publicly support integration back in 1947? Suffice to say, there are plenty of Hall of Famers of dubious quality when it comes to their morals and attitudes.

Big and bloated, and impossible to get out, he was neither a fan favorite nor an especially endearing character. Most would consider him an unworthy successor to Aaron, even if he is WIllie Mays’ godson. (Getty Images)

As a society, we could use a lot more like Henry Aaron. Aaron was a man of courage, dignity, and persistence. I wonder how many who claim to have been horrified by the suffering endured by Aaron are at the same time intolerant of the arguments being waged by athletes today like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. Any decent human being could sympathise with what Aaron went through, but do they truly understand how many instances such as this, people of color have had to endure? What if Aaron had complained and called out the racist scum who threatened his life, would he have been within his rights? The fact is he didn’t and like Jackie Robinson, suffered in silence. Despite the fact that it’s hypocritical of the Hall of Fame to draw the line at the behaviors of Schillig, Bonds, and Clemens, when one considers the gravitas of Henry Aaron, perhaps that group needs to be on the outside looking in for the foreseeable future.

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