American exceptionalism is a theory in part defined as America being superior to other nations. It is also an ideology that in a micro perspective has fueled white supremacy dogma and centuries of enslavement, oppression and discrimination endured by those of African descent.
However, America has indeed produced exceptional men and women. Their status should be measured not only by tangible achievements, but more substantially by the content of their character. Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron represented the best of America. His profound legacy expands far beyond his athletic accomplishments and accolades. He is distinguished by more than being arguably the greatest hitter, debatably the best player in the sport’s history.
Aaron was a beacon of light. A symbol of inspiration and hope not just to Black people, but to those who were proponents of a more equitable, humanitarian America. Aaron’s passing last Friday in Atlanta at the age of 86 of natural causes as determined by the Fulton County (Georgia) Medical Examiner’s Office is a reminder of what America was, is and can be.
Its battle to overcome and atone for its heinous acts against the Indigenous People and Africans. Its grapple today with health, economic, racial and social injustice. And its yet unfulfilled potential to be virtuous. Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934 in the Jim Crow South, Aaron saw and experienced firsthand the marginalization and dehumanization of people solely because of the color of their skin.
Baseball became his seemingly predestined platform to shatter racial stereotypes and further the truth of Black excellence, as his boyhood idol, Jackie Robinson, did in paving a path for Aaron. Playing for the independent Negro League team the Prichard Athletics, then the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears, both while attending high school, Aaron was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1951.
His evident prodigious talent made his stay with the Clowns short-lived. By 1952 the 6-foot, 180 pound Aaron was playing minor league baseball in the Milwaukee Braves’ system and made his Major League Baseball debut on April 13, 1954. By the time he retired in 1976, Aaron was the MLB career leader in the three principal offensive production categories: home runs (755), RBI (2,297) and total bases (6856). The latter two records still stand.
But it was the night of April 8, 1974 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in front of a sellout crowd of 53,775, that became the defining moment of his illustrious career and a seminal juncture in America’s ongoing narrative of coming to terms with racial fallacies. For many, Babe Ruth’s MLB home run record, which had held firm at 714 since 1935, was an edifice of white superiority. With one dynamic swing of his bat on a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Al Downing, Aaron tore down a sizable number of stones from that fragile structure.
“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol,” intoned the late, iconic broadcaster Vin Scully in describing the moment in real time. “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.”
Aaron had a highly successful post-playing career, which included being automaker BMW’s first Black dealer. In interviews he often spoke of his experiences as a target of malignant hate mail and worrisome death threats as he approached Ruth’s hallowed mark. Dignified, humble and gracious, Aaron was unapologetic and unwavering in both words and deeds in fighting for the greater good, endeavoring to compel America to embrace its better angels.