I was lucky enough to see Hank Aaron play, once, in Philadelphia late in his career.
We were living in Baltimore and my father wanted me to see the great man in person. As someone who read every baseball book I could find, I comprehended Aaron's status as one of the greatest players ever but was surprised by his aura of humility.
He was pursuing the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth, a man who was as much showman as slugger. If you had watched Aaron in person without knowing anything about him and, if you didn't witness one of his whip-like home run swings, you might have mistaken him for a journeyman, because he offered no displays of flamboyance or arrogance.
In 1974, as he pursued Ruth's record, Aaron blended his natural grace with survivalist stoicism. He faced not merely the pressure of making history, but of confronting America's.
As a Black person growing up in the deep South before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Aaron succeeded because he had the strength to endure.
Aaron played in the Negro Leagues. After signing with the Milwaukee Braves, he joined their farm system playing in Eau Claire, Wis., then endured a year of overt racism in Jacksonville, Fla., before starting his big-league career with Milwaukee in 1954.
Eau Claire erected a statue honoring Aaron in a 1994 ceremony that he attended. Eau Claire, he said, gave him his first glimpse of desegregation.
"If it had not been for my first year as an 18-year-old kid coming to Eau Claire … and having the people accept me … as a human being … I think that my career might have stumbled a little bit," he said in '94.
Two years after playing in Eau Claire, Milwaukee brought him to the big leagues, where he met a child named Roy Smalley.
Smalley's father, also Roy, played for the Braves and frequently brought his son to the ballpark. "I was a fat baby," said Smalley, the former Twins star. "I looked like the Michelin Man, and my arms were really fat, so Mr. Aaron called me 'Muscles.' "
That skinny young man who teased Smalley would visit Met Stadium in Bloomington at least twice. He batted second for the National League in the 1965 All-Star Game, getting a single in five at-bats. And about a month after breaking Ruth's record, the Braves played a midseason exhibition at Met Stadium.
Sid Hartman's column from that day opens with Aaron and Harmon Killebrew sitting together in a dugout, trading stories, before competing in a home-run contest. Aaron is quoted saying, "Sure, I'm relaxed a little bit to the stage where I don't have to worry about whose record I'm catching up with. Otherwise, it's the same thing. It will hang with me the rest of my life — Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth and Babe Ruth. I hear this constantly."
Aaron built a career as uncommon as it was exceptional. Remove his 755 home runs and he would still have had 3,016 hits, more than Wade Boggs, Al Kaline or Roberto Clemente.
He would break Ruth's record despite never hitting more than 47 home runs in a season. If you removed hitters accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, or those who only had to face white pitchers, Aaron would hold the home run record by a margin of 93.
As he neared Ruth's record, Aaron would receive about 3,000 handwritten pieces of racist hate mail a day. Even after he broke Ruth's record, he would receive hate mail and death threats for years.
Author Howard Bryant, who wrote "The Last Hero" about Aaron, has said that even as Aaron rounded the bases after his record-setting 715th home run in 1974, Aaron felt conflicting emotions because he was the subject of such hate.
Instead of becoming embittered, Aaron became an example of toughness and perseverance. Instead of merely trying to capitalize on his fame, he ran Atlanta's farm system, overseeing the development of the key players who would face the Twins in the 1991 World Series. He would become Atlanta's senior vice president, and later found the Hank Aaron Rookie League program.
"Hank Aaron was the most important influence on my life, next to my Dad," former teammate Dusty Baker said. "He was the best person that I ever knew, and the truest, most honest person that I ever knew.
"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. Hank impacted my life, my family and my world, both on and off the field. He was a great man."
We've lost one of baseball's greatest people, and the game's true home run king.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org