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Tales from the Chief: All hail Hank the hero

Hank Aaron was a record-breaking slugger, and so much more

McGaughey mug

It has been said many times over the years that baseball is a game of inches, and while that's true, in many ways it’s also a game of numbers.

The oh-so-close distances between balls and strikes, fair and foul balls and “safe” and “out” calls consistently influence every contest on the diamond to this day. While these can be recalled — and argued about — with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it’s often statistics that inspire the most debate and passion.

With stats, of course, come numbers that are magical to any serious baseball fan of a certain age. There’s 511 (wins by Cy Young, easily the most ever by a pitcher). There’s 56 (longest consecutive game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio). And there’s 714 ... and 755 ... and (to a lesser degree, in my mind) 762.

Babe Ruth amassed 714 home runs over his major league career, and he almost certainly would’ve had more if he hadn’t broken into the big leagues as a pitcher and in the dead-ball era. Not only were the Babe’s slugging exploits legendary, but his entire persona was also bigger than life.

Hank Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86, was the one who eclipsed Ruth’s majestic mark, of course, ending his career with a remarkable round-tripper total of 755. Yet, Ruth’s status as a power-hitter often still manages to overshadow Aaron’s, partially because of his famous 60-homer season in 1927, his three other seasons with 50-plus homers, the occasionally acknowledged height and distance of many of his fence-clearing blasts and, of course multiple well-documented appetites. Aaron, meanwhile, was only a season home run leader four times. The most he ever hit in a season was 47. Aaron also wasn’t a flashy player like peers such as Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente, but above all was consistently great over a prolonged period of time.

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What may be most noteworthy about Aaron, though, is how he persevered over decades toward Ruth’s home-run record in the midst of utter hate and blatant racism.

“When Mr. Aaron began playing in the minor leagues, it marked the first time that he had shared the field with white players,” stated an Aaron memorial piece written by Dave Sheinin and Matt Schudel and published online Friday in The Washington Post. “When the Braves assigned him to a team in Jacksonville, Fla., in the South Atlantic (or Sally) League, he heard steady taunts from white spectators throughout the South.”

Aaron soon joined the Braves, who then played in Milwaukee, but in 1966 the team moved to Atlanta, a relocation that worried the Alabama native. “I have lived in the South, and I don’t want to live there again,” he said. “We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”

Though his status as one of baseball’s best helped him win over hometown fans, the admiration was far from universal. That became increasingly evident as Aaron neared the sacred 714-home run mark.

“Since 1972, the U.S. Postal Service noted at the time, Mr. Aaron had received more mail than anyone who was not a political figure,” Shenin and Schudel wrote. “Much of it was filled with racism and vile language.

“Some of the contents were released to the public. ‘If you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers,’ one letter said, ‘I have a contract out on you. Over 700, and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell.’ Another read, ‘My gun is watching your every black move.’

“A security team accompanied Mr. Aaron at all times, his daughter received police protection while attending college, and the FBI looked into some of the more extreme threats,” The Post piece continued.

Despite all of this, Aaron not only performed at a high level (in 1973, at age 39, he hit 40 homers, drove in 96 runs and batted .301), but he continued to conduct himself with dignity despite the hate and completely unfair animosity he faced. And, after his playing days concluded, Aaron became a respected executive with the Braves franchise as well as a businessman and civil rights advocate. He later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

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Barry Bonds came along and passed Aaron’s 755 homers in 2007, but the final Bonds HR count of 762 is really just another number in a game of numbers. In a game of inches, it can be said that Hank Aaron is miles above.

Ryan McGaughey arrived in Worthington in April 2001 as sports editor of The Daily Globe, and first joined Forum Communications Co. upon his hiring as a sports reporter at The Dickinson (North Dakota) Press in November 1998. McGaughey became news editor in Worthington in November 2002 and editor in August 2006.
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