Hank Aaron will be remembered for his astonishing achievements as one of the all-time great baseball players, not least because he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. But Aaron also ceaselessly fought to defend black people in a hostile racist society
Hank Aaron in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1973., National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
The long life and legacy of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron may be best summed up from a quote from his autobiography, I Had a Hammer.
I used to have talks with Jackie Robinson not long before he died, and he impressed upon me that I should never allow myself to be satisfied with the way things are. I can’t let Jackie down — or my people, or myself. The day I become content is the day I cease to be anything more than a man who hit home runs.
Today, in celebrating the life of Hank Aaron, most commentators have reflected on his status as the first professional baseball player to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. Most have even gone so far as to call him the “true home run king,” due to the cloud of steroid allegations surrounding Barry Bonds’s home run records from this century. But while Aaron was a home run hero, he also wanted to be remembered for far more than that.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, Aaron came of age during the height of the Great Depression, and just as one stage of the civil rights movement was beginning to take shape. He experienced poverty that would have been familiar to many other African Americans in the South during the Depression, coloring how he saw his responsibility to other black people for the rest of his life. Growing up poor, he barely had access to baseballs, bats, or gloves. Baseball gave Aaron an opportunity to escape from poverty — in much the same way as it has operated for African Americans across the nation, or players from Latin America today.