Babe Ruth created the prototype for baseball sluggers. A larger-than-life personality, drawn to excess, poetically all-or-nothing with either mammoth blasts or mighty whiffs. An icon afforded a leash as long as the next tape-measure blast. No feat in sports was as magical and spellbinding as the home run and no position in public eye treated with more wonder than that of Home Run King.
Henry Louis Aaron did not inspire boozy legend-making from train-riding sportswriters or chew scenery or seek the limelight, yet he was pilloried and judged and hated for reasons he could not control. He set about his business in a professional, workmanlike manner. If Charlie Gehringer was the Mechanical Man, then Hank Aaron was the perfected model with more power. For 23 years someone would wind him up on Opening Day and watch as he went about his business, swinging at the top half of the baseball to make it go further in the air with more regularity than anyone who came before or has naturally come after.
He hit 13 home runs for the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and 10 for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976. He was an All-Star for 22 straight years. He'll be remembered for his record number of home runs, but he was so much more, even on the field. If you take away those 755 homers, he would still be north of 3,000 hits.
His baseball life ran concurrent to decades of social strife and the racism he faced persisted and only intensified as he approached Ruth's sacred mark of 714. He drove away fastballs and death threats and you never saw him sweat, leading a big life on the biggest of stages with grace, class, and dignity.
Muhammad Ali said he was the only man he idolized more than himself. His off-field strength and resolve were perhaps greater than what he showed on the diamond.
The man who was every bit as large as his life died this morning at age 86. Baseball will be emptier for the loss, as there will be no one, ever, who can occupy the same place Aaron did and will continue to do for years into the future.
Aaron was a benevolent Home Run King who treated all his citizens the way he should have been treated. He brought joy to so many who didn't deserve to ride his joy, but that was his burden. A heavy one that never caused his shoulders to sag or his knuckles to choke up.
My generation was too young to ever see him play. But he was a statesman, an entity in his own right. To know anything about baseball was to know that Aaron was the best of it. A shining icon who kept the thrills going with a consistency that boggles the mind. His spirit is lasting and won't diminish as the countless athletes, freedom fighters, and average Joes who have found inspiration in his path continue to blaze their own divergent ones.
Aaron was the best of us, in manners of sport and manhood. Reliably great and impactful and authentically himself to the end.