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Hank Aaron, home run hero

Hank Aaron about to get his 3,000th hit in Cincinnati, 1970 (CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy)

Sports

Hank Aaron, home run hero

Relying on Christ, “Hammerin’ Hank” thrived on the ballfield despite immense racial prejudice

When fulfilling what he considered his Christian duty to make Major League Baseball accessible to elite black players, Branch Rickey needed a man of solid Christian character to help accomplish his goal. Hence, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager hired Jackie Robinson.

How fitting, then, that another Christian would come along in Henry Aaron to build on Robinson’s legacy.

Known for breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home run record in 1974, “Hammerin’ Hank” died on Jan. 22, just weeks shy of his 87th birthday. Aaron’s 755 career homers still rank second all-time among major leaguers, behind only Barry Bonds’ 762—a number whose legitimacy remains questionable due to suspicions that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Aaron experienced much of the same discrimination Robinson faced as a player: During his minor league days in the South Atlantic League, Aaron—the league’s Most Valuable Player—could not stay in the same hotels as most of his teammates. On the field, he suffered verbal abuse from both players and fans.

While closing in on Ruth’s record in the early 1970s, he received hate mail and death threats daily and even needed FBI protection at the ballparks where he played. Sometimes he slept at the ballpark due to fears for his safety.

Through it all, though, “Aaron dealt with the extreme racism of his day much in the way Robinson did—with quiet humility, class, confidence, and the excellence of his play,” Shawn A. Akers wrote for Charisma News.

Aaron’s Christian faith had much to do with that. A onetime Catholic who became a Baptist, he used to keep a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ in his locker.

A reporter once asked Aaron how he remained calm despite the daily hate-filled invective he faced for trying to break a revered white player’s record: “When I was in the ballpark, I felt there was nothing that could bother me,” Aaron responded. “I felt safe. I felt like I was surrounded by angels and I had God’s hand on my shoulder. I didn’t feel like anything could bother me.”

Providentially, roughly midway through Aaron’s 23-year career in the major leagues, his employer, the Milwaukee Braves, relocated to Atlanta—the heart of the civil rights movement. Much of the South was still coming to terms with desegregation when the Braves arrived there in 1966: To put it mildly, the idea of blacks and whites attending the same schools and eating at the same restaurants did not sit well with many whites.

“I kept feeling more and more strongly that I had to break the record not only for myself and for Jackie Robinson and for black people, but also to strike back at the vicious little people who wanted to keep me from doing it,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer.

“All that hatred left a deep scar on me. I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country.”

That made Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully’s call of Aaron’s record-breaking home run at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, all the more poignant:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball! What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia! What a marvelous moment for the country and the world! A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol!”

Two white fans even ran onto the field and clapped Aaron on the back to celebrate the occasion—proof that even in the South, white fans could embrace an African American as their hero.

—A version of this story appears in the Feb. 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Home run hero.”