Hank Aaron Is Baseball's True Home Run King, Not Barry Bonds
Baseball Hall of Famers don't get any better than Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron. As a player and person.
He was Hammerin' Hank. The Hammer. And he was a hero to generations of baseball fans.
Do We Believe the Record Books?
Major League Baseball record books say Hank Aaron, who died on Jan. 22, is second on baseball's career home run list with 755.
Aaron held the career home run record for 33 years after breaking Babe Ruth's record with his 715th home run early in the 1974 season.
The record books tell us Aaron held the record until 2007, when San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run and broke Aaron's record.
MLB's Greatest Travesty
This, my friends, is perhaps the greatest lie in baseball history. And the greatest travesty.
Hank Aaron is still baseball's true home run king. Not Barry Bonds. In so many more ways than just hitting the ball out of the park.
Was the Home Run Record Stolen?
Hank Aaron didn't just change baseball by the way he played the game. He changed it by the way he carried himself while he was playing the game.
And to have that record, perhaps the most hallowed record in all of professional sports, stolen from him is shameful.
From Poverty to Superstardom
Aaron came from abject poverty growing up outside of Mobile, Alabama. He taught himself to hit by smacking bottle caps with sticks as a small child and fashioning baseball equipment out of materials he found discarded in the streets.
He was playing professional baseball for the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro League team, by the time he was 16 years old for $3 a day.
He did this because only white students were allowed to play high school sports.
A Champion for Civil Rights
That Aaron grew up idolizing the great Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in MLB history, was fitting. Because Aaron himself would fight the same racial injustice that Robinson fought — over 20 years after Robinson's MLB debut.
Off the field, Aaron was a warrior for civil rights. He knew what it meant to be the target of hate. He received death threats and racial taunts throughout the entirety of his career. They reached the apex of hate when he broke Ruth's record in 1974 and received over 3,000 letters a day. Many of them included threats on his life.
When Aaron retired in 1976, he was the last major league player who played in the Negro Leagues.
Celebrating a Life Unlike Any Other
How important was Aaron to our American story?
He received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001. He received the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush, in 2002.
Now, we have another chance to celebrate Aaron's life and what he meant to all of us.
A Quiet Hero for the Ages
We shouldn't forget how Hank Aaron had the greatest record in all of sports ripped away from him by Barry Bonds, an athlete as synonymous with cheating as much as hitting home runs.
Bonds is only rivaled by infamous athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson and fellow baseball players Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. They were the architects of baseball's "Steroid Era" and have been shunned from the Hall of Fame.
Bonds became a villain after breaking baseball's home run record. But through Bonds' gracelessness, Aaron taught us the meaning of grace.
Did he complain about losing his record? Did he publicly shame Bonds for cheating to break it?
Aaron's Message to Bonds Stirs Emotions
Instead, Aaron handled everything about Bonds' pursuit the same way he'd handled breaking his own record. He made jokes about it beforehand, filming a commercial with Bonds where he tried to talk him into retiring before he broke the record.
Aaron was famous for not wanting to publicize his own record-setting home run in 1974. After he broke the home run record, he expressed his relief to a young broadcaster named Craig Sager who ran on the field to congratulate Aaron and was the first reporter to interview him following the historic moment. Years later, Aaron openly stated he would not be in attendance when Bonds passed him.
Instead, he filmed a video that congratulated Bonds on winning the record. The video was played at AT&T Stadium in San Francisco as a surprise to Bonds and all the fans there. The most poignant line was the last.
"My hope today," Aaron said, "as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."
Baseball's Most Hallowed Record Falls
Aaron's record did just that. It inspired a whole generation of baseball fans to chase their own dreams.
Sadly, and somewhat predictably, Bonds' record has not done that. He doesn't inspire. He doesn't push people to chase their dreams. He doesn't invoke any sort of feeling of awe and wonder in baseball fans. He did quite the opposite.
It's not all his fault. Bonds was a great player (likely a Hall of Famer) before performing-enhancing drugs became prevalent. Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner at the time, did nothing to stop their flow. MLB profited. Bonds benefited. But in the long run, we all lost.
The Ultimate Legend
Nothing can tarnish the legacy of Hank Aaron. He is in a league of his own when it comes to class and set a standard that will be tough to equal.
His greatness on the field still holds up. He still owns the MLB career records for RBI (2,297), total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477) and All-Star game selections (25). His greatness off the field doesn't have statistics.
Sometimes, the record needs to be set straight. Sometimes, we need to make sure that wrongs get made right.
Hank Aaron is baseball's true home run king. Let's never forget that.
We'll Always Celebrate Hammerin' Hank
Now enjoy this look back at Hank Aaron's life and career in photos.
Hank Aaron celebrates his 39th birthday with a birthday cake from the Atlanta Braves in 1973.
Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run in front of a record crowd of almost 54,000 people at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta on April 8, 1974.
Relive that magical moment with Vin Scully's call.
Sailing Into History
Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs with a blast of Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw pitcher Al Downing. Catcher Joe Ferguson and umpire David Davidson look on.
Beloved by the Masses
Hank Aaron is carried off the field by his teammates following his record-breaking 715th home run.
Welcome to Harlem
Thousands of fans came to Harlem in 1974 to see Hank Aaron after he broke Babe Ruth's career home run record.
Beloved Around the World
Hank Aaron and his wife, Billye, pose for a picture with two girls in Japan following the 1974 baseball season.
Twilight of a Career
Hank Aaron spent the final two seasons of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Mr. Aaron, The Grand Marshal
Hank Aaron was the grand marshal of the 1975 Rose Bowl Parade.
The Dynamic Duo: Ali and Aaron
Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali, far left, were close friends for decades. In fact, Ali said he idolized Aaron "more than myself."
Taking His Final Cut
Hank Aaron takes the final swing of his career in a game for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976.
No One Will Wear No. 44 Again
Hank Aaron had his No. 44 retired by the Atlanta Braves in 1977.
Standing Up for What's Right
Hank Aaron stands with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a news conference about MLB teams hiring more minority executives in 1987.
Of Course, He's on a Stamp
Hank Aaron stands with Olympic officials in Atlanta in revealing a stamp ahead of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Aging With Grace
Hank Aaron and his wife, Billye, attend a movie premiere in 2002.
The Elder Statesmen for MLB
Hank Aaron speaks with reporters at an MLB event in 2009.
Honored on his 75th Birthday
Hank Aaron listens to a speech at an event honoring him on his 75th birthday in 2009.
Once a Brave, Always a Brave
Hank Aaron worked for the Atlanta Braves in some capacity for most of his life following his retirement from baseball.
Hank at the Hall of Fame
Hank Aaron waves to the crowd at the Hall of Fame in 2013. He was inducted on the first ballot in 1982 with 97.8 percent of the vote.
Everyone Loved Hank
Hank Aaron poses for a picture with baseball stars David Ortiz, left, and Alex Rodriguez at the 2019 World Series.
Tributes for a Hero
Atlanta Braves employees set up a tribute for Hank Aaron following his death on Jan. 22, 2021. Aaron died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86.
Hank Aaron: 1934-2021