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Remembering Baseball Legend Hank Aaron

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a hard year in Major League Baseball's fraternity of stars. Several Hall of Fame players have died. And now that list includes one of the most legendary, Hammerin' Hank Aaron, who died yesterday at the age of 86. His storied 23-year career included breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record while enduring racism and death threats. And in every remembrance of the man's life, you hear the same words - dignity, humility, humanity. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Henry Aaron - he preferred his given name - began an unforgettable major league career in 1954. As the seasons unfolded and his greatness evolved, first in Milwaukee and then Atlanta, it was striking that the national spotlight on the game's best outfielders focused more on his contemporaries, like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. In a 2016 interview on "The Dan Patrick Show," Aaron admitted he did feel left out, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE DAN PATRICK SHOW")

HANK AARON: You know, in some ways, I was blessed because I played in Milwaukee. We didn't get the hype as they got as Mantle and Mays and those guys in New York got. But by the same token, we were loved, and I felt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #1: Hank Aaron wallops the ball to deep left center, and Bill Virdon is there to play the carom off the wall.

GOLDMAN: Braves fans loved a player who year after year was a model of dominant consistency. When it was tallied up, after 23 years in the majors, 21 of them as an all-star, Aaron had reached the 300 mark in batting in 14 seasons, had at least 90 runs batted in 16 seasons and finished with more than 3,000 hits, the mark of a great hitter. But, of course, home runs gave Hammerin' Hank his nickname and the spotlight that eluded him in his early years. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, Aaron was not a brawny basher. He was a student who studied opposing pitchers meticulously. And he did have those iron forearms and wrists, which he helped develop delivering blocks of ice as a kid in Mobile, Ala. Those wrists would flick, and the ball would fly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: Darrell Evans, second base, nobody out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CRACKING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: High towering drive - this may be it. There it goes, home run No. 700 for Henry Aaron.

GOLDMAN: By the summer of 1973, when he smacked his 700th, it was clear what was coming to an end, Babe Ruth's hallowed mark of 714 career home runs. During Aaron's march toward a new record, he received a reported 930,000 letters, many encouraging, wishing him well, many vile - racist notes, death threats by people unwilling to see a Black man eclipse a white sports icon. For Aaron, a celebratory march turned grim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON: It was tough. You sit down, and you want to cry about it sometime.

GOLDMAN: This was Aaron in a 2019 interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON: What did I do to make people have this kind of hate toward me?

GOLDMAN: In 1994, Aaron told The New York Times, quote, "it really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. They carved a piece of my heart away."

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: When Aaron flicked No. 715 in Atlanta in April of 1974, fireworks and cheers heralded the home run record. The scene at the stadium was particularly meaningful, as described by broadcaster Vin Scully.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIN SCULLY: A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.

GOLDMAN: It was a crowning moment in a record he held for 33 years. But for Aaron, the moment was forever tarnished. He saved the hate letters, telling an interviewer in 1992, if you're not part of something, it's easy to tell somebody to forget about it. I was part of it, and it still humbles me a lot.

Henry Aaron carried his humility throughout life. His career dovetailed with the civil rights movement. He was a quiet, yet ardent supporter. In the end, he taught a world that watched him and knew him with his grace. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said yesterday on member station WABE, one of the ways to honor Hank Aaron is to model his behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: You can be great and wonderful at something, but you still are a human being. And his respect for other people - but in addition to that, he never forgot how hard it was for African American men and women to really achieve. And he developed a formula for how to do that.

GOLDMAN: How successful was that formula, that life? The late boxer Muhammad Ali, a global sports icon, once said, the only man I idolize more than myself - Hank Aaron.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.