Life has an expiration date. It is how you live before reaching that point that matters. No one did it better than Henry Aaron. Death cannot diminish a life well-lived.
Before he died the other day at age 86, Aaron had been retired from baseball for 45 years. And his accomplishments have stood the test of time. He remains first in career runs batted in with 2,297, first in extra base hits with 1,477, first in All-Star Game appearances with 25, first in total bases with 6,856, and many folks will tell you, still first in home runs with 755.
Oh, sure, bulked-up Barry Bonds had 762 but Aaron’s total was his own, not the result of a chemical cocktail that many believe fueled Bonds’ number. Aaron remained dignified and above the fray as Bonds pursued the record and the baseball world frantically followed every at-bat.
Aaron did not dismiss the accomplishment, did not ask about the substances that most people believed were aiding Bonds’ chase. He simply watched quietly and when Bonds hit No. 756, he sent a video message of congratulations.
In the seasons when Aaron was on his own home run chase, challenging Babe Ruth’s record of 714, he churned up the ugly spectre of racism that always seems to exist just below the surface in America. There were death threats to him and his family that arrived daily, no matter what city he was playing in. They pounded away at him day after day, month after month, season after season, robbing the joy he should have been feeling, eating away at his love for the game.
He had fallen in love with baseball as a kid, listening to the message of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s tradition of segregation. After signing with the Braves, he tolerated all manner of abuse, playing southern cities in the minor leagues.
When he broke Ruth’s record on April 8, 1974 in Atlanta, it should have been a moment of celebration for him. Instead, it was a moment of relief. He remembered all the letters, the threats, the racist language that wore at him for all those years. He remembered the insults he heard early in his career, forced to live away from his teammates because, after all, he was a Black man in a white man’s game, playing ball in the South.
As he circled the bases, those memories flooded his mind. It was as if a spigot had opened and the abuse came pouring out.
And as he crossed home plate, he was surrounded by teammates and family. He looked up into the stands and there were fans standing and cheering for the new Home Run King – fans in a Deep South ballpark cheering for a Black man.
That is the legacy Henry Aaron leaves behind.