The baseball news cycle just keeps getting worse.
On Jan. 22, the great Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86. Hammerin’ Hank was the 10th MLB Hall of Famer lost in the past year, along with Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Al Kaline, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton.
Aaron was of course known for his prodigious power at the plate. What you might not know about the Hammer is that he also had a powerful Catholic faith.
In 1959 — just a few years after he began playing professional baseball — Aaron and his family converted to Catholicism in part due to his friendship with Milwaukee priest Father Michael Sablica, an early pioneer for racial justice in the city.
Hank was said to be a frequent reader of “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis, which he kept in his locker. He also kept a Catholic booklet, Venerable Fulton Sheen’s “The Life of Christ,” in his glove compartment.
Those reading materials must have played an important part in Aaron’s career during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. As he chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Aaron was subject to vile racism, hate mail and even death threats that could have derailed the hallowed quest. However, Aaron rose above the hate en route to achieving baseball immortality.
With 53,755 fans in the Atlanta stands at 9:07 p.m. on Monday, April 8, 1974, Aaron connected on the first pitch he saw off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth inning and drove it over the left field wall for a home run.
It was No. 715. The Babe’s record stood no more. Aaron’s perseverance proved to be much stronger than the hate and threats directed toward him.
Dodgers legendary announcer and the Bronx’s own Vin Scully said it best about that night:
“A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
Aaron went on to finish his career with 755 home runs. On Aug. 7, 2007, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke the record. Yet there are some baseball purists who still view Aaron as the rightful home run king.
Though on paper he no longer sits atop the home run list, Hammerin’ Hank is still the all-time leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856). What’s amazing is that you could remove all 755 home runs from his statistics, and he’d still have more than 3,000 hits. Wow!
What’s more amazing is that Aaron never had a 50-home-run season. His highest total was 47 in 1971 at the age of 37. This just shows the durability and consistency of one of the best to ever play the game. He wound up averaging 37 homers a season over his 23-year career.
The 25-time All-Star won the 1957 National League MVP — the same year his Braves won the World Series. He was also a three-time Gold Glover and a two-time National League batting average, contributing to his career .305 mark — unheard of for a power hitter of his caliber.
When we hear the name Hank Aaron moving forward, it will be difficult to distinguish whether his on-field or off-field legacy will carry more weight. Think about that: The baseball player who hit the second-most home runs in history might be remembered more for his dignity and grace in the face of racism than his countless on-field achievements.
Simply put, Aaron was a pillar of strength to baseball fans and the Black community at a time when they desperately needed that source of strength. Unfortunately, some of the issues Aaron dealt with in his day still persist in this nation.
As we prepare to celebrate February as Black History Month, Hammerin’ Hank will live on as an example of someone who respected life, his faith and the game of baseball. He now takes his place in right field on Heaven’s All-Star team.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.