Sports Take: In remembering Hank Aaron, baseball must do better by its players of color

FILE - In this April 8, 1974, file photo Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run in Atlanta Stadium to break the all-time record set by the late Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway, Jr., File)

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

If there is one stat that every baseball fan knows, it’s 755: the number of home runs that Henry Louis Aaron hit during his major league career. On Friday night, the man that has long been known as “Hammerin’ Hank,” and “the Home Run King” died in his sleep at the age of 86, adding to the list of baseball heroes lost during the last 11 months.

I didn’t grow up in baseball. My love of the sport wasn’t passed down to me like it’s been for most baseball fans. My family comes from a soccer background. I grew to love this game on my own, taking every opportunity I can to learn as much as I can about it.

So, I knew about Hank Aaron and his 755 home runs, but I didn’t know just how important he was not just to the game of baseball but to the history of our country.

It didn’t take long for me to understand just how impactful Aaron had been, and will be forever, to America’s pastime.

Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., during the peak of the Jim Crow South. He signed with the then-Milwaukee Braves as a teenager and after two years in the minors, he moved on to the major leagues, playing 23 seasons in right field and setting record after record after record, many of which still stand today.

But the thing is, as beloved as Aaron became both during and after his career he was still a Black man in America “existing in places that didn’t want him.” The only way to really understand why Aaron is much more than a baseball hero is to understand the context and circumstances in which he played the game.

The one thing that Aaron is most remembered for is breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record on April 8, 1974, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta. The video of Aaron’s 715th home run has been replayed innumerable times over television and social media since Friday, and the thing that stands out to me is that the then-40-year-old Aaron doesn’t really look happy, and it isn’t hard to figure out why.

The closer that Aaron got to breaking Ruth’s record, the more danger he and his family were in. He received a mountain of hate mail, full of death threats, neither of which was new for Black players at that time. However, Aaron received so much of it that the U.S. postal service gave him a plaque for it.

His entire career, he had to face the ugliness of racism, thrown at him on and off the field, never letting on how much pressure he was really under while the world sought to tear his dignity from him.

Since the end of his career, Aaron has been seen by many, particularly by those of color, as the epitome of grace and class. Mostly because we understand what he had to give up in order to achieve what he did. He proved again and again how magnanimous he was. Even when Barry Bonds, a known user of performance enhancing drugs, broke his home run record in 2007, Aaron still took it upon himself to congratulate him.

In learning all this and looking at the state of baseball today, looking at the state of our country today, I can’t shake the sense that we as baseball fans and Americans have failed Hank Aaron. Despite all the progress we’ve made since the Civil Rights movement, the venomous poison of racism and white supremacy still pervades our sport and our culture. With how diverse the player pool and the fan base are in modern baseball, there still seems to be a subtle level of that cancerous “old school” mentality that hurts the sport.

You can see it in the criticisms put on Latin players like Yasiel Puig and Fernando Tatis Jr., who play the game with flair and passion and are branded with having huge egos for breaking an invisible rule book because of it. You can see it in the fact that Mookie Betts was the only African American player to participate in the World Series when the Los Angeles Dodgers won this past season. You can see it in the way that MLB as a whole (not talking individual clubs, but as a collective) handled its response to the police brutality protests that followed the death of George Floyd.

The one constant thing in America since the mid-19th century has been baseball. Even in times of war, even in times of strife, even when it hasn’t been very popular, baseball has remained a part of the American identity. And while it has seen its fair amount of change, it is change that has happened much too slowly.

For its own sake, baseball has to do better. And as baseball fans, we have to do better as well.