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An Appreciation

Hank Aaron and his eternal connection to Black baseball

Aaron became his generation’s most direct descendent of Jackie Robinson not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to

You can be respected. You can be envied. You can be idolized. You can be emulated. You can be loved. It’s a rare person who can check all those boxes. Hank Aaron could, and did.

Aaron was an exquisitely larger-than-life hero who was all the more remarkable because of the humility, class, quiet dignity and humor with which he approached every challenge, every hurdle. He died on Friday, at 86 years old.

He became his generation’s most direct descendent of Jackie Robinson not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to as he ran directly at the racists who wanted to prevent his success. He was one of the torchbearers to emerge from the Negro Leagues, even though his time there was incredibly short. By 20 years old, he was an outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves, showcasing his raw yet oh-so-obvious talent.

His presence in the major leagues created a safe place for Black players from Dusty Baker to Joe Morgan to Ken Griffey Sr. It was almost like the baseball version of the Underground Railroad. When you get to Atlanta, look up Aaron and he’ll take care of you. When you get to San Francisco, look up Willie Mays and he’ll take care of you. When you get to Pittsburgh, look up Willie Stargell and he’ll take care of you.

It wasn’t just during the season. There were barbecues and dinners with spouses. These guys relied on each other to be strong, to help each other be strong, and Aaron was on the cutting edge of that. He made sure the younger players knew they had a shoulder to lean on and that he would always have their backs. Baker shared stories over the years of his friendship with Aaron and what it meant to have his support.

The support was important at a time when Black players were not celebrated but challenged. Aaron did not run from racism. He showed America, while playing in the heart of the South, how to be fearless, how to be a man.

No one should have had to endure what Aaron did while pursuing Babe Ruth’s home run record. How dare he, half this country demanded to know. Such forces that harkened back to night riders, Klansmen and the shackling of generations of Black people, wanted to degrade and break him simply because of the color of his skin.

He endured. He conquered, he outlived the haters, proved more resilient than the most vile streams of racism that America of the last century could muster.

He won over a nation, helping it grow toward its promise. Just by being more heroic than we as a nation deserved, Aaron made mere numbers the asterisk, not the story.

Author Claire Smith, pictured here with Hank Aaron, who asked to take a photo with her. She says: Rest in peace, Mr. Aaron. Thank you for all you did for your game, your people, your country.

Claire Smith

One of my favorite memories of Aaron was a few years ago. As a sports journalist, you’re never supposed to ask for autographs or “selfies.” To do so is to flirt with ending your career and surrender your credibility. So as I served as coordinating news editor for ESPN, I had the privilege of sitting on the set during our live-game salute to Aaron and his career. He joined the telecast for four innings. We were all in awe as he regaled the audience with story after story, demonstrated his cross-wrist bat grip. He took us back to the Negro Leagues. He took us down the lonely, frightening road that was his chase of Ruth’s home run record.

After he finished, members of the crew asked for handshakes and photos. I stayed in my seat taking it all in. Finally, Mr. Aaron looked at me and asked if I would like a picture, too. He asked me! I did not say no. Careers come and go. There was only one Henry Aaron.

In the last several years, we’ve lost so many greats from Frank Robinson to Willie McCovey to Joe Morgan that the toll has been relentless. But Aaron was the man you never thought would die.

Alas, even the greatest do die. What makes them immortal is that they and their lessons taught will never be forgotten.

Henry Aaron will never be forgotten. May you rest in eternal peace, No. 44.

Claire Smith is a recipient of The Baseball Writers Association of America’s Career Excellence Award for her contributions to baseball writing as a reporter and columnist. She is a member of the faculty at Klein College of Media and Communication and is the co-director of the Claire Smith Center for Sports Media at Temple University.