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Remembering Hank Aaron, an iconic player and an iconic life

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The Braves legend, who died Friday at 86, made his mark in becoming Home Run King, but homers didn’t define the player or the man

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Hank Aaron remains the all-time leader in total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477) and RBI (2,297).
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

My favorite Hank Aaron anecdote came from former Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president relaying that he taught the Braves icon how to ski, taking Aaron to Colorado in 1999. The Home Run King was 65, the old dog learning a new trick.

Aaron’s exploits on the baseball field were the stuff of legends — the 755 home runs, and illustrating that power alone didn’t define his game, the realization that if you took away that record-setting number of blasts, he’d still have over 3,000 career hits. He was front and center in the Civil Rights movement, keeping company with Martin Luther King Jr., a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a trail blazer in breaking through in upper-level management in MLB.

Hank Aaron was an icon, in every definable sense. Friday, that icon died at age 86.

He becomes the third Braves Hall of Famer to pass in the last month, joining Phil Niekro, who died Dec. 26 and Don Sutton, who passed Tuesday.

Former Braves public relations director Bob Hope recalled a trip to Aaron’s home with an attorney friend, The Hammer having agreed to appear in a faux SportsCenter segment for a bat mitzvah. Asked how he would describe Aaron, Hope brought up Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If.’

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise

When the men reached Aaron’s home, he showed them a coffee table book, a birthday gift from the Smithsonian Institute to commemorate a realistic portrait of Aaron painted for the National Portrait Gallery. Call it coincidence. Call it karma, but on the first page of the book, were those words from Kipling.

“That’s my favorite poem,” Aaron told Hope. “That’s how I try to model my life, after that poem. So, they put it in there.”

If’ was Aaron in the march toward a number and another icon. He would endure hate mail, death threats, having to stay in a separate hotel from his teammates as he chased down Babe Ruth’s home run record. A combination of pressure and bigotry that former Braves owner Bill Bartholomay called “objectionable, tasteless commentary. ‘If’ was Aaron, defining class and measure in the face of all of it.

And then April 8, 1974. Aaron took Al Downing deep, one of baseball’s most celebrated moments as he took Ruth’s crown.

Aaron finished his career at 755, a record that would stand until Aug. 8, 2007, when Barry Bonds supplanted him atop the all-time home run list. Though there are those who, given Bonds’ connections to performance-enhancing drugs, still deem Aaron and his 755 the true mark. In a celebration at Turner Field on the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s achievement, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig echoed that notion when he took to a podium and called the slugger “ideally suited to become Babe Ruth’s air.”

That night Aaron, then needing to use a walker after he had fallen on the ice outside his home and broke his hip, took the stage and quipped ““Forty years ago, if I would have known this was going to happen this way, I would have hit the home run earlier, probably.”

The prolific home run total, though, was only part of what defined him. He’d become the Braves’ vice president and director of player development, a 13-year run that made him one of the first minorities to hold an executive position in the majors. He turned his homers into philanthropy through his Chasing the Dream Foundation — which had set out to award scholarships to 755 recipients, a number that was long surpassed — and the 44 Forever scholarship program in working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Aaron’s impact stretched beyond the field, but it was there where he played in 21 All-Star Games, won three Gold Gloves and remains the all-time leader in total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477) and RBI (2,297), third in hits (3,771) and fourth in runs scored (2,174). He also fifth in stolen bases (240) among players with at least 500 home runs. If there’s every to be a Mount Rushmore of baseball, it can’t exist without Aaron’s face on it.

In 2014 when the Braves honored that seminal moment in his career, Aaron closed his remarks with this:

“I gave baseball everything that I had. Everything, every ounce of my ability to play the game, I tried to play to make you the fans appreciate me more. Thank you.”

No, Hank. It’s all of us that should be thanking you.

It’s in the last stanza of ‘If’ where Aaron may have been most personified, where Kipling said “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch.”

Aaron didn’t just walk with kings. He became one. An iconic career, an iconic life and an iconic legacy.

Rest in peace, Hammer.