When Mickey Mantle died on Aug. 13, 1995, Hank Aaron was giving a talk at Harvard University. You’ll never know, what more he might’ve achieved had he had two good legs, he told the students, referring to how Mantle’s career was hampered by a torn right ACL.
That was typical of Aaron – always gracious to the baseball brethren. Indeed I have a copy of the card he sent to future sluggers chasing his and other baseball home run records. It shows a little boy with a bat in a ballpark, looking toward the right-field stands. “Keep swinging for the fences,” it says. And it’s signed “Hank Aaron.”
That other people were as gracious to Aaron, who died Jan. 22, two weeks shy of his 87th birthday (Feb. 5), was sadly not the case. There was something about the pursuit of Babe Ruth’s records that gnawed at fans, even some who never knew the Babe or saw him play. Roger Maris went through hell in pursuit of Babe’s single season home run record (61 in ’61). Thirteen years later, Aaron would swing for the big one – Babe’s all-time home run mark of 714 and achieve that milestone despite hate mail and death threats compounded by the fact that it was an African-American who had attained one of baseball’s holy grails.
“April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball,” he told The New York Times’ sports columnist William C. Rhoden as the 20th anniversary of that accomplishment approached in 1994.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” he said. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
And yet, Aaron went on unassumingly. Other contemporaries were flashier – Mantle and Willie Mays, for two. Others were more prepossessing physically. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, Aaron cut a trim, compact figure running the bases, stealing when needed, playing right field for 21 years for the Braves, first in Milwaukee and then Atlanta, before returning to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers.
When the American Museum of Natural History hosted a press preview for the “Baseball as America” exhibit in 2002, gathering Hall of Famers and corralling hot dog carts for an event this reporter will never forget, I asked Aaron the secret of hitting so many homers: “It’s all in the wrists, miss,” he said to me. “It’s all in the wrists.”
You can see him now getting those powerful wrists and forearms around late on a tricky fastball, yet hitting it over the fence – somewhere up there in the great ballpark in the sky, still demonstrating that you don’t have to big and loud to be great.
– Georgette Gouveia