In 1982, it was Hank Aaron’s turn to enter the Hall of Fame. This was after putting together an immaculate career that saw him retire as either the career leader in numerous offensive statistics or somewhere near the top of the leaderboard if he wasn’t at the top. You could have very easily made the argument that Hank Aaron retired as the best overall hitter to ever set foot into a batter’s box, so there was really no question in 1982 whether or not Hank Aaron would go into the Hall of Fame. At this point, it was only a matter of whether or not he would get in as a unanimous decision among the voters.
Instead of making one last bit of history as a baseball player by receiving a unanimous induction into the Hall of Fame, Hank Aaron ended up missing out on the distinction by nine votes. It was a baffling decision back then and it’s still considered to be absolutely wild that nine people had the annual honor of voting on a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot and actively chose to leave the Home Run King off of their ballot. Aaron definitely noticed the slight:
To think that nine presumably responsible voters would deem Henry Aaron unworthy of the Hall of Fame is, in a word, preposterous. Almost scandalous. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be unanimous,” Henry Aaron was saying yesterday, “but I realized that nobody had ever been a unanimous choice. I was happy to come in second.”
How could nine voters not mark the square next to Henry Aaron’s name on their ballot? “If a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame by a unanimous vote,” Henry Aaron said, “he should be rewarded with it.”
Between this and the other issues that Hank Aaron had to deal with in his career as a Black baseball player — with the vile and racist dreck that was being sent his way during his chase for 715 being the most prominent example — it would have been understandable if Hank Aaron decided to just keep to himself and hold things very close to the vest once he retired as a player. Instead, he continued to be just as big (or even bigger) of a person in retirement as he was a player during his career. Instead of closing ranks, he decided to give back to both the game that he helped reshape and the community that helped mold him into the man he was. This work continued all the way up to his last days, and he carried himself with an air of excellence throughout the entire time.
Fortunately for Hank Aaron, he was able to live long enough to where the slights went from being few and far in-between to being nonexistent, as he ended up becoming one of the most beloved figures in baseball. Even if you never saw Hank Aaron either in person or on TV send one flying over the left field fence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium live and in living color, people who did see him realized that they were watching greatness at work and did their part to relay to the next generation just exactly who Hank Aaron was and what he represented.
As a result, Hank Aaron was able to command the type of respect that is seemingly only reserved for luminaries outside of sports. The best example that I can think of off the top of my head is from the 2020 home opener for the Braves, which is when Aaron made what turned out to be his final guest appearance on an Atlanta Braves broadcast. By this time in his life, it was normal to see Andrew Young sitting alongside Hank Aaron every now and then and this was one of those occasions. However, it’s really important to realize that Andrew Young is not just some random public figure. This is a man who was close with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a man who emerged as one of the most integral figures of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a man who later became a major player in politics on his way to eventually becoming mayor of Atlanta. Atlanta itself has been celebrated as a Black Mecca over the years, and Andrew Young is one of the main reasons why that’s the case.
So it’s really telling that even with all of these accomplishments and accolades under Andrew Young’s belt, Hank Aaron still managed to stand just as tall as he did and sometimes commanded even more respect from a captivated audience than a former United States Ambassador to the United Nations. That was the case during the 2020 home opener, as Hank Aaron turned a regular season baseball game into must-see and must-listen TV as he imparted wisdom over the airwaves. It was like that every time Hank Aaron showed up on TV in his later years. Personally, I vastly prefer listening to the Braves Radio Network with the TV on mute. In the occasion where Hank Aaron decided that it was time to put on a headset, that was also the occasion where I muted the radio and turned the TV back up. When Hank Aaron decided to talk, it was time to listen.
It really can’t be stated enough how important Hank Aaron was to not just the game of baseball, but the fabric of this nation as well. It really is a beautiful example of turning adversity to excellence when you consider that after decades of baseball keeping Black players from playing in the then-recognized major leagues, it only took seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for the future Home Run King to eventually make his big league debut in the form of Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron alone is proof that while it’s nice that the Negro Leagues have been recognized as a Major League, they were never lesser than what was recognized as Major League Baseball at the time — not when those leagues and circumstances produced Hammerin’ Hank, himself.
A man who retired as the last of the Negro Leagues also ended up retiring as the man who toppled Babe Ruth from his perch on top of the career home run standings — and did it in Atlanta, Georgia as a Black man from Mobile, Alabama. A kid who had to cobble together whatever he had found on those streets of Mobile in order to create makeshift bats and balls went from those circumstances to eventually having his big league equipment on display as tribute at Cooperstown. The most beautiful part of all of this is that Hank Aaron wanted everything that the game had given him to also be available for everybody who came after him as well. Hank Aaron served as a gatekeeper only to keep the gates open for anybody who wanted to feel the same feeling that baseball had given him for most of his life.
The only good thing about Hank Aaron’s death is that I’m almost certain that when he did go, he didn’t feel unappreciated. One of my favorite lines from Kanye West comes from the song “Big Brother,” where he raps that “If you admire somebody you should go on ‘head tell ‘em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell ‘em.” It’s true that sometimes people don’t get their proper respect until after they’re gone for good. That was not the case with Hank Aaron. He rightfully received all of the flowers while he was with us, and he’s going to keep on receiving those flowers now that he’s gone. He may not have received unanimous entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he absolutely earned a unanimous vote when it came to the Life Hall of Fame. Hank Aaron will go down as one of the biggest legends in baseball history, and now it’s up to us as fans to make sure that we continue to love the game of baseball the same way that he did.