Hank Aaron’s heavy burden

(Editor’s Note: Since I didn’t want to turn the obituary on Hank Aaron into a book, I decided to post this article first and then post the full obit when I get it written.)

There have been many people in baseball who have accomplished incredible things, while at the same time being deeply flawed or not particularly nice. I don’t have to name names; you can probably think of a few. You could admire their stats, but you wouldn’t want to share the same elevator with them. And when we talk about those people, we have to add those flaws into the story, as a postscript: “He did this great thing, but he was also doing this awful thing at the time,” or “His accomplishments will forever be tainted by his beliefs.”

At two of the most critical moments in the game, though, we had exactly the right person at the right time doing the right thing. The first was Jackie Robinson when he integrated baseball. He wasn’t the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time, but he was the right man to break baseball’s color barrier. He was able to withstand all the taunts, slurs and death threats — not because he had otherworldly grace or patience, but because he had to. He surely wanted to beat Ben Chapman senseless, charge the mound at a brushback pitch and yell back at every name-calling fan. But that would have proven the racists right, that blacks and whites can’t be on the same field. So he stoically carried on because he carried the future of every African-American on his back. That was his burden.

If there was anyone who understood what Jackie went through, it was Hank Aaron. In his bid to surpass the legendary Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king, he exposed himself and his family to every manner of vile threat imaginable. His children had to be treated as prisoners in their own home, for their own protection. He couldn’t sit with his back to the door in a room or leave a drink unattended in case someone tried to poison him. Publicly, he made it look so easy. Many of his teammates even said they never saw him get angry. But if he led that coolness crack or complained about the vile hate mail, he would have let those racist fools know that they got to him, that they won. He wasn’t about to let that happen.

There was a case in 1980, when Aaron had a run-in with Florida Man. Technically, it was 61-year-old Howard Hunt of West Palm Beach. Aaron was dining with Braves minor-league manager Pedro Gonzalez at the Catamaran Restaurant in Magnolia Park. Hunt, who had been drinking, was there too, and as he staggered to leave, he almost fell. Gonzelez said good naturedly, “Take it easy, Pops.” Hunt then pulled out a .45-caliber revolver and said, “Don’t talk to me that way, ******.”

Hunt left the restaurant and was quickly tracked down and arrested on charges of aggravated assault. Aaron tried to write the incident off as “a drunk who just decided he didn’t like black folks.” But he was shaken and angered by it. Years after his retirement, he still couldn’t eat a meal with a friend in peace. Even though Hunt likely didn’t even know who Aaron was, it was one more threat against his life. One more racial slur thrown in his face. One more burden.

Over the last 30 or 40 years of his life, there was probably nobody more beloved in baseball than Hank Aaron. He could appear anywhere and have a legion of fans and a never-ending autograph line. When Barry Bonds broke his home run record, he was the epitome of class, as he had been all his life. Even so, the work of the racists and their hatred had taken their toll on Aaron and his love of the game. You can only hope that the outpouring of goodwill that he received in his later years did at least a little to lift the burden he carried. After all he did, he deserved some joy.

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