It would have been easy to talk about the debacle going on at Tennessee as it pertains to its football program.
That’s until I learned about the death of whom I, and many others, believe is the true home run king in Major League history: Hank Aaron.
Growing up, I was a rabid Cincinnati Reds fan, as most who know me are well aware. Maybe I’m not so rabid anymore, but that’s because the Big Red Machine is missing a few parts these days. But during those halcyon days, I remember watching Aaron, following his trajectory as a superstar.
When I really started following baseball, he’d already been established as a great player for the last 10 years or so. Even where I lived in Florida, there seemed to be newspaper headlines about Aaron’s proficiency as a player.
I’d open our paper each morning and look at the box sores and the home run leaders’ list. Aaron always was in the top three. If memory serves, he only led the National League in homers four times in his 23-year career, yet was consistently atop the charts his whole MLB tenure.
He was a 25-time all-star, 1957 MVP and World Series champion that same year for the Milwaukee Braves.
Aaron could do it all. He could hit, hit for power, he had speed on the basepaths and a cannon for an arm. Someone said of Aaron, “trying to sneak a fast ball by him is like sneaking the sun past a rooster.”
My dad used to subscribe to Baseball Digest (which I think was for me as much as it was for him) and there were stories about the home run chase. Who would pass Babe Ruth first? Aaron or Willie Mays? Mays finished with 660 home runs, which was a feat, but Aaron kept on charging.
In the season opener of 1974, Aaron tied Babe Ruth by hitting No. 714 off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham. The following Monday night, in Atlanta, in front of a national-television audience, he cracked No. 715 off of Al Downing. I watched both games. Even at 12 years old, I knew the significance of this feat.
Aaron experienced brutal racist hate mail and death threats during the home run chase and once worried someone might harm him while playing, yet he kept performing and producing. And who would have thought that Aaron, a black man, would receive a lengthy standing ovation from adoring fans in Atlanta, Ga.! The deep south?
He was a gracious individual who played the game at a high level, yet never really called attention to himself. He let his performance do the talking.
“I always played baseball the way I thought it should have been played,” Aaron said.
He certainly did that and more. He was the model of consistency. Take away his 755 home runs and he still has more than 3,000 hits. Let that sink in for a moment.
I have been fortunate enough to see Mays, Bonds, Rose, Bench, Brock, Gibson and dozens of other baseball legends growing up. I’ve seen stars of the 50s and 60s in person as well as some of the contemporary greats. In my mind, Aaron was the best of all.
I was a big Reds’ fan growing up, but Aaron was among my favorite non-Reds players … beacuse he played the game like it was supposed to be played.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.