05/22/07 11:00 AM ET
Aaron represents the best of baseball
Hall of Famer is more than a home run king
What also sets Henry Aaron apart, particularly in a day when professional athletes aim for swagger or cool, or some kind of highly profitable public persona, is that Aaron's career was conducted with a quiet kind of dignity. In fact, his life has been conducted with the same quality.
Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, has known Aaron for 50 years, dating from the time when Aaron was starring for the Milwaukee Braves and Selig was a young and devoted fan. It was 50 years ago that Aaron and the rest of the gang from what some New York publications referred to as "Bushville" won the World Series. It was a magical season in Milwaukee.
"I have many, many favorite Henry Aaron moments," Selig said, "but the best one is, I'm a 23-year-old kid, sitting alone in the upper deck at County Stadium, September 1957, and he hits the home run off Billy Muffett [of the St. Louis Cardinals] that wins the National League pennant."
For Selig, who has spent much of his life trying to present baseball in the most favorable public light, Aaron is not only a close friend, but also a baseball ideal.
"If you were to pick the prototype person to break the most famous record in professional sports, you know who it would be? Henry Aaron," Selig said. "Why? Because of his class and his decency and his dignity. He has represented this sport so beautifully in every way."
Lost sometimes in the face of all those home runs is the fact that Aaron, breaking into the Major Leagues in 1954, still qualified as a pioneer. African-American players still faced built-in prejudice. For Spring Training, there were Jim Crow laws in the South. And even greatness on the diamond was no guarantee against bigotry. When Aaron was on his way toward breaking that most famous record -- Babe Ruth's 714 lifetime home runs -- Aaron was subjected to piles of vicious, racist hate mail, not to mention numerous death threats.
"He took so much abuse during that process," Selig said. "It was sad in so many ways. But he came through it, the same way he would accomplish anything else -- quietly, thoughtfully, and with dignity."
His greatness as a player was established over time by the home runs. But it could be argued that Aaron, who was no less than outstanding in all aspects of the game, probably didn't receive his due during the peak of his career. He was "Hammerin' Hank," no question about it, but his exploits may be more celebrated now than they were when he was playing. There was no SportsCenter then, and no Internet, either. Playing outside the media capitals of the nation, in Milwaukee and later in Atlanta, Aaron never received the amount of accolades that, for instance, Willie Mays did.
The quiet dignity also wasn't going to attract much extra notice for Aaron, either. But it remains at the core of who Henry Aaron was, as a player, and as a person.
And this is why we celebrate Henry Aaron and will continue to celebrate Henry Aaron, even if or when his home run record is broken. He not only hit the home runs. He was the sort of human being that you would want to have holding baseball's most treasured mark.
Selig, as president of the Milwaukee Brewers, brought Aaron back to Milwaukee, this time in the American League, for the final two seasons of his career. Aaron was past his peak by then, but it was a fitting way for him to finish his career, back in the place where it started.
"I saw him play his first game and his last game," Selig said. "I've known Henry for 50 years now. I have a world of respect and affection for Henry Aaron. And the thing is, he is the same fundamentally nice, decent person now that he was then. He is just a wonderful person."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.