By Michael Levitt
When Henry “Hank” Aaron passed away on Jan. 22, baseball lost one of its greatest players to ever step on the field. But Aaron was more than just a baseball great. He was an icon that reached past baseball and was an inspiration for people across the country. He was a reminder that anyone could do anything they wanted if they just put their minds to it.
On the field, he was a historic player. Aaron hit 755 home runs, the record for over 30 years, and is the career leader in both runs batted in and total bases, with 2,297 and 6,856, respectively. The most mind-boggling statistic from his career is that the number of his career hits would still be over 3,000 even if all his home runs were subtracted from that total. There are many other statistics that show how great Aaron was on the baseball field, but his legacy is far greater than that.
After retiring from baseball, he could have lived a quiet life away from the fame and publicity of baseball and he would still have had a tremendous legacy, especially on the game of baseball. Instead, he gave back to the country and created an even greater legacy for himself, helping thousands of people all over the nation before his time on Earth came to an end.
Perhaps Aaron’s most well-known form of activism started while he was still a baseball player but continued long after he was done playing. His involvement with the fight for civil rights was one of the defining parts of his off-the-field work. He first experienced racism as a young kid in Alabama, where his family had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan on multiple occasions. Soon afterwards, he listened to Jackie Robinson speak about his experiences with racism and how he had handled it. Aaron took what Robinson said to heart. When Aaron became a professional baseball player, he remembered what he had heard from Robinson those years before and believed that it was his duty to further the civil rights cause. However, even while playing baseball, Aaron continued to experience racism. During his chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record, he received thousands of death threats, so much that his team had to hire people just to sort it. The amount of hate mail that Aaron received made his memory of breaking the home run record less pleasant than it should have been, yet he did not let it stop him. He continued to do what he wanted to do and would not let anyone stop him from doing it. Even though he had a quiet demeanor and kept to himself during his baseball career, he was connected to the civil rights movement and was a large face to the movement for many years. Aaron was the first African-American player in Braves’ history, and when they moved to Atlanta in 1966, he became an even bigger face of the movement since the team was located in the South of the United States, where racism was far worse than in Milwaukee (the previous home of the Braves) and the rest of the North.
Aaron’s involvement in the civil rights movement led him to have a greater involvement with politics than simply speaking out about the injustice of racism. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy in Wisconsin when Kennedy was running for president and was given some credit for helping with the victory. Aaron also organized a rally for Bill Clinton in 1992, and he was again given partial credit for Clinton’s victory of Georgia. Clinton even gave Aaron the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, and George W. Bush commended Aaron again a year later with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest awards a civilian can receive in this country.
While Aaron did a tremendous amount of work for the civil rights movement, he also focused on the next generation. Aaron paid school fees for children who could not pay the fees themselves, as well as many other ways of giving back to those in need. Aaron had a tough childhood, so young children who were in need always had a special place with him. One of his most recent endeavors was giving scholarships to college students through his Chasing the Dream Foundation. The scholarships were specifically for students who were attending historically black colleges and universities. Aaron spent a lot of time working with the foundation, which had one-part time employee in 2017 and had a budget under $100,000. In 2016, the foundation gave $350,000 in scholarships to students attending 27 different schools, and Aaron assisted Major League Baseball in giving out $2 million in scholarships as well.
Aaron was an incredible man, one who will be greatly missed. Many people have had their lives improved because of him, and the organizations that he worked with will continue to live on and pursue his goal. One of Aaron’s favorite things in his life was helping people, and he had a full lifetime of doing just that. He worked to make the world a better place not just for himself, but for future generations as well. He invested a great amount of resources in future generations, with the hope that they would do the same in the future. He was truly a class act, not just on the baseball field, but especially off it. Henry “Hank” Aaron had a great impact on many people’s lives, and his legacy will live on forever; a legacy of great philanthropy and activism that inspired a nation.
Edited by Emma Moloney