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A real world legend: Henry 'Hank' Aaron's resolve made him an icon of the civil rights movement

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5 min read
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Bear down. Bow down to no one. Pay it forward.

These are the lessons that Jackie Robinson taught Henry Louis Aaron as Aaron embarked on his remarkable career in Major League Baseball, and Aaron took the words to heart.

Aaron, “Hammerin’ Hank” to generations of baseball fans, died on Friday at age 86.

The term “GOAT” and the word “legend” get thrown around too freely these days, but over the last century there are few athletes, few people of any background, for whom both are incredibly apt. Aaron is arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, and for what he did on the field while absorbing arrow after arrow, so many of them tipped with the poison of racism, he is a legendary figure.

As happened with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali before him, Aaron’s death brought a flood of tributes and remembrances.

But Aaron, like King and Ali, only became beloved to a wider majority of Americans once he got older. Once his powerful swing and incredible consistency were diminished, once he was no longer in the headlines year after year for succeeding in a game so many believed he had no right to excel at, certainly not once he began threatening the numbers of Babe Ruth.

To say he persevered cheapens his greatness, because who among us could report for work every day to a ballpark with little (if any) security, thousands of fans who loathe you for the color of your skin, and the fear that one of them is there to make good on the promise to kill you they made in a written letter?

Aaron did that.

He never backed down.

Hank Aaron waves to the crowd at the 2010 Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati.
Hank Aaron waves to the crowd at the 2010 Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati. (Photo by John Grieshop/MLB via Getty Images)

Incredibly, he saved some of the very worst letters he received, the ones that called him the N-word over and over (one person had no issue typing out the slur, the most offensive and demeaning word in this country, in capital letters but would not type out “damn,” which is a window into the depths of that individual's sickness), and spoke of how the incessant hate mail — the Braves received up to 3,000 letters a day as he neared Ruth’s home run record — changed him and robbed him of being able to fully celebrate his achievement.

Aaron revered Robinson, and as Robinson had influenced him, taught him to never take no for an answer, so did Aaron teach other Black MLB players who followed him into the league. Current Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker began his playing career with the Atlanta Braves, and Aaron was so much more than a teammate; in a statement Friday, Baker called him a “the best person that I ever knew” and the second most influential person in his life after his father.

“He taught me how to be a man and how to be a proud African-American. He taught me how important it was to give back to the community, and he inspired me to become an entrepreneur,” Baker said.

Aaron helped integrate the Class A South Atlantic League while playing for Jacksonville, Florida, and he helped integrate Atlanta after the Braves moved there from Milwaukee. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Aaron initially wasn’t a fan of moving back to the Deep South; in Milwaukee, he didn’t experience the oppression of Jim Crow rules and segregation.

Once he arrived, however, he saw the burgeoning civil rights movement and realized it was his duty to become involved and help those that looked like him. He met Dr. King but befriended Andrew Young, who would become a U.S. congressman, mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations.

Aaron and his wife, Billye, donated money and time, in ways known, as with his “Chasing the Dream” foundation, and in secret.

As a longtime Braves executive, Aaron never stopped pushing baseball to do better about its lack of diversity in all areas, never stopped speaking up for those that looked like him.

In 2017, he said Colin Kaepernick was getting “a raw deal” from the NFL, saying, “I don’t think anybody can do the things he can do” as a quarterback, and that he would love to see other players show support for Kaepernick.

Earlier this month he and Young were at the Morehouse Medical Center to receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine — a way to show fellow Black citizens who are rightfully skeptical of medical research after the horror of the Tuskegee experiment and continuing, documented mistreatment of African-Americans by medical professionals, that it was safe to get the vaccine. The Black community is disproportionately suffering during the pandemic, from deaths to small business closures to unemployment that is only widening the staggering wealth gap.

As recently as last summer, immediately after the killing of George Floyd, Aaron lamented to MLB.com’s Mike Lupica, “Something is so wrong in our country.”

But he was heartened by the peaceful protests, the young people of all backgrounds marching for justice. He knew they could be the ones to bring change.

And he had a message for them: “I’m not able to move around much anymore. But if I could, I’d be out there marching. I’d be right there at the front of the line.”

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