A friend called and asked me had I heard.
Amid all the tumult in the United States, Henry Aaron’s death Friday added to the nation’s misery index. While Aaron wasn’t the face of Major League Baseball, he could have been, which is America’s melancholy.
For if any star deserved its reverence, Aaron was the star. His life after baseball turned into questions with no answers. Much of it played out in the silhouettes of two men from his generation: Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
In their prime, both were considered better than Aaron. They were not, but my saying so won’t change how others perceived him. Aaron’s name should stand next to Babe Ruth’s as the greatest ever – home run kings whose bats changed the record books.
Except for Mays, whose health is poor at best, Aaron’s contemporaries preceded him in death. Still, baseball fans can cling to an enduring image, something that eludes Mays.
You remember the image, right?
Think about April 8, 1974, when Aaron hit homer No. 715, erasing Ruth’s name atop the all-time homer list. Network TV cameras captured it for posterity – Aaron’s rounding the basepath as fans in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium left their seats and joined him on his circuitous journey toward home.
Yet the moment brought Aaron as much pain as acclaim. He suffered too dearly for his blackness, which proved unforgivable to white Southerners and the Ruth crowd. Not that Mays suffered less for his skin color, but his name wasn’t next to the most sacred record in all of sports.
The lords of the game decided not to celebrate Aaron the way they should have. They never made him an ambassador for the game. In their eyes, he could not rival Jackie Robinson or Mays; nor could Aaron ever be to the big leagues what Buck O’Neil was to “black baseball.”
In the early aughts, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum wanted to honor Aaron, Mays, Monte Irvin and Ernie Banks, ballplayers who got their starts in the Negro Leagues. The plan was to bring all four to Kansas City, Missouri, for a roundtable discussion about their careers.
Aaron, Mays, Irvin and Banks, four Hall-of-Famers, would have regaled viewers with story after story about black baseball and about their early days in the majors.
For the program, the museum recruited an A-lister as host, and it hoped Major League Baseball would jump aboard the project, which was pitched to baseball officials. But the project went nowhere in a hurry. The game lost a chance to etch these Black voices into the oral history of baseball.
Too be sure, Aaron left enough of himself to ensure he will never be forgotten. It’s impossible, though, for anybody to forget 755 homers.
Like frames from the movie “Field of Dreams,” Aaron will be playing catch with Irvin, Banks and The Babe tonight and forevermore.
“Hammerin’ Hank” won’t shed one tear for how his life unfolded. He will leave the crying to folks who didn’t see him as the embodiment of what was found inside only the greats of the game: humility, integrity and selflessness.
In the days ahead, some people will apologize for how Aaron was treated, but what good will an apology do now that he’s not around to hear it?