When I was growing up in Chicago, my father took me to a lot of baseball games. Some were just your typical father-son outings, others were special. We might have been on our way to Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park, but in my dad’s eyes we were off to see greatness in action: Willie Mays or Frank Robinson or Bob Gibson or any of the many black baseball superstars of the ‘60s.
On the bus or the el train to the ballpark, he would brief me about what to watch for. And for the most part, he was right about the greatness aspect. These iconic black baseball players of the era seemed cut from a different cloth than their peers. Mays had an enthusiasm that infected everyone, even people in the stands. Gibson’s stern stare could intimidate someone in the cheap seats hundreds of feet away. Robinson had an intensity that seemed to make the scoreboard vibrate.
One day in 1968, we charged off to Wrigley Field to see Hank Aaron. (The Cubs and the rest of the Atlanta Braves were secondary concerns.) My dad was particularly excited. In a game that featured four future Hall of Famers, Aaron was clearly the best player on the field; he had three of Atlanta’s seven hits, but my Cubs won 5-2.
As good as Aaron was, he wasn’t larger than life like some of the other players of the era. By this time, I was 8 years old and hip to the Johnson family tradition of contrarianism, so on the way home, I piped up with my assessment that Aaron wasn’t equal to the other players we’d made trips to see. My father let out a sigh of disappointment and went silent. As we got off the bus, he said “you know, he’ll probably be the all-time home run king.”
It didn’t take long—six years—for history to prove my father right; 35 years ago, April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron homered over the left-center field fence in Atlanta Fulton County stadium and broke the most hallowed record in all of sports—Babe Ruth’s career home run mark of 714. Home runs seem cheap today; they routinely fly out of new ballparks built to dimensions designed to bolster offense. They are hit by batters who seem artificially bulked up by steroids and human growth hormones. And the dingers are served up by pitchers who are now trying to hit a strike zone that is a fraction of its former size.
By the mid-‘60s, it seemed that Willie Mays stood a chance. He hit an astonishing 226 home runs in a five-year period from 1961-’65, but age was catching up to the Say-Hey Kid, and by the time he retired after the 1973 season with 660 home runs, Aaron had passed him and set his sights on the Babe. That should have made for one of the most compelling real-life dramas of a dramatic era, but Aaron was one of the most unprepossessing superstars in sports history. He could not do the celebrity athlete thing. (His contemporary parallels are NBA great Tim Duncan and retired tennis champ Pete Sampras.) He responded when questioned, but mostly he let his performance speak for itself, and his bat was garrulous.
Born in Mobile, Ala. in 1934, Aaron made his major league debut for the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, and it certainly seemed that he was destined for greatness right away. He was the National League MVP in 1957, one of the youngest men to win the award, and he led the Braves to their only World Series championship during their 13 years in Milwaukee. Unlike many of the one-dimensional, boom-or-bust sluggers, Aaron, 6-feet tall, 180 pounds during his playing days, was a superb all-around athlete. Home runs were just part of Hammerin’ Hank’s arsenal. He hit for high average and took pride in his career mark of .305. His 3,771 base hits rank him third on the all-time list. And he was fast, too; from 1961-’68 he even averaged more than 20 stolen bases a season.
Aaron knew that he had Ruth’s mark in his grasp. From 1969 to 1973, when he was in his late ‘30s—a time of decline for even the greatest of athletes—Aaron continued to belt home runs at a prodigious pace. When he homered during the final weekend of the 1973 season, it gave him 40 for the year, 203 for the five-year period and 713 for his career. What followed was probably the most intense offseason ever. Aaron received loads of racist hate mail; there was talk that the only thing that would preserve Ruth’s record was an assassin’s bullet. Undaunted by the pressure, Aaron hit home run No. 714 in the first series of the season in Cincinnati.
On April 8, 1974, his Braves faced the Dodgers in a nationally televised game; in the fourth inning, during his second at bat, he hit his record-breaking home run. On his epic trot around the bases, Aaron was met by two white college-aged men in what has to be one of the great failures of security in the game, yet the guys just patted Aaron on the back and seemed as excited as the wild crowd. The ball didn’t land in the stands but rather in the Braves’ bullpen and was retrieved by pitcher Tom House, who brought it to Aaron, and he held it aloft in front of the Braves’ dugout. It was a photo op for the ages. This quiet, soft-spoken and intensely hardworking man had done what a generation of baseball fans had thought to be impossible; he passed the Babe.
Once he turned 40, the years began to take their toll. Baseball fans often note with amazement Aaron’s late-‘30s performance and what makes it even more noteworthy is that it’s clear that the nagging injuries that result from age were wearing him down. In 1973, when he was 39, Aaron hit 40 home runs and batted .301 despite missing 42 games with an assortment of injuries. Although he didn’t radiate the same kind of intensity as a Frank Robinson, he was driven. Aaron finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League, where he could be the Designated Hitter and avoid a role in the field. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame the first time he was eligible with a near-record vote.
Aaron’s playing career took place in an era when black athletes followed Jackie Robinson’s lead and went from the periphery to the mainstream. Pelé, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown and, of course, Mays, Gibson and Robinson all exploded onto the scene dominating their sports. And with their charisma, they created a cottage industry around their superstardom. Aaron was every bit their equal and superior to his peers in baseball. What he lacked in flash and charisma—save for that one shining photo op 35 years ago—he more than made up for in hard work, consistency and achievement.
And that’s what you watch for when you’re trying to find greatness.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.