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2/5/2014 9:15 A.M. ET

Happy birthday, Hank, and thank you

Aaron, 80, continues with same grace and dignity he exhibited as player

It is Henry Aaron's 80th birthday. His a life that must be celebrated, for its impact both on and off the field.

He was Hammerin' Hank, the most prolific home run hitter of the 20th century, a baseball player of extraordinary talent and will. His ability and his competitive spirit carried him to achievements never before reached by other players.

He was a baseball pioneer in an era in which Jim Crow laws ruled the South and African-American players were subjected to the ill effects of prejudice on a regular basis. Aaron received a double dose, as he was subjected to mountains of racist hate mail and even death threats on the way to surpassing Babe Ruth's career home run record.

His post-retirement career has been characterized by charitable ventures. Through it all, Aaron has carried himself with a quiet, sustaining dignity. He has become more than a great hitter as a player. He has become an icon of American culture. And his personal conduct has made him an ideal American icon.

Fittingly, Aaron's life will be celebrated this weekend, in our nation's capital. There will be a dinner honoring Aaron on Friday night in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by Aaron's friend of 56 years, Commissioner Bud Selig.

On Saturday, Aaron and his likeness will be celebrated at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. For those who know Aaron best, the honors he receives are richly deserved.

"He has represented the game so magnificently, on and off the field," Selig said. "You couldn't ask for anybody any better to represent baseball. You talk about American icons. All you have to do is mention the name Henry Aaron and it's just, 'Wow.'

"And he's built that by being a wonderful human being. He's everything that's good about baseball, a great sport. He was a great player, but he's an even better human being. And he's been a great friend."

In a big league career that spanned more than two decades, with the Milwaukee Braves, the Atlanta Braves, and finally, two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron set records not only for career home runs, but career RBIs and total bases.

His performance was distinguished by remarkable consistency. He had an OPS of more than .900 for 11 straight seasons and achieved that same level 17 times in 19 seasons from 1955-73.

He was a superior player in every facet of the game. He probably did not receive full credit for his greatness while he played, because the prime of his career occurred in smaller media markets.

"This is a matter of opinion, but I still think that he was the greatest player of our generation," Selig said.

For all of that, Aaron's successful pursuit of Ruth's record would be the defining, public point of his career. Against the landslide of hate mail on one side, there was, on the side of justice, Aaron and his ability, his remarkable and persistent dignity in the face of adversity.

Catching and passing Ruth was not simply a major statistical milestone. This was about a man defeating bigotry. Aaron was a major figure before he broke Ruth's record. After that, he was a major figure in the evolution of American society.

But he never became someone else; someone with a larger ego, a bigger hat size, a greater sense of his own importance.

"The fact is," Selig said, "that he has remained the same wonderful human being that I first met in 1958."

"Happy Birthday" would be the obvious message for baseball fans to send to Henry Aaron today. But a sincere "thank you" would be just as fitting.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.