On January 22, 2021, Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron died at the age of 86.
He was Atlanta Braves Baseball Team's Hall of Fame right fielder and a Major League Baseball Icon.
They called him the "Hammer".
I remember the Buzz in Atlanta in 1966 when a Major League Baseball Team moved
from Milwaukee, WI. It was later named the Atlanta Braves.
The entire city was caught up in "Braves Mania" in spite of the team's underperformance.
Eight years later, in 1974, the team's star player Henry (Hank) Aaron broke
Baseball legend Babe Ruth's Home Run record of 714.
On his way to beating the home run record, Aaron faced racial hate mails, death threats and name calling.
Through it all Hank carried himself with dignity and poise.
After beating the monumental record, Aaron humbly said,
"I don't want them to forget (Babe) Ruth, I just want them to remember me".
By all counts, Aaron was the unlikely slugger to achieve this feat.
He was born in Mobile, Alabama in a poor African American family and started his career in the Negro League. He was perceived too thin to be a home run hitter in Major League Baseball.
In his playing days, the Major league Baseball was dominated by great pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and others.
Then, the pitchers mound was higher, so the hitters were constantly overwhelmed by the fireballs from the pitchers. During his era, hitting 20 home runs in a year was considered a great feat.
Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a year. But he was consistently leading the league in number of hits, batting average, runs batted in and home runs.
He led all the power hitters in number of base steals.
He was a rare athlete with speed and power. He was also a superb defensive right fielder.
He had 3 Golden Glove awards in his career.
The way Aaron hit the baseball was also unique.
While Babe Ruth and other home run hitters of his era were all power and strength,
Hank Aaron used his phenomenal wrist and timing.
Towering home runs were replaced by Aaron's perfectly timed line drives.
They say no one could swing the bat the way Aaron did.
When I saw Hank Aaron's performances in person, he reminded me of a skilled fencer.
It was sheer poetry to see Aaron swinging a line drive and within a minute
a fan in the lower bleacher of the stadium catching the ball.
For a Legend, he was also too modest and avoided the limelight.
He was often overshadowed by other baseball greats of his generation.
Everyone thought Willie Mays (the "Say Hey Kid" from San Francisco) was more likely than Aaron
to become the Home Run King.
He was so low keyed that international stars in other sports barely knew of him.
Once, Rod Laver, the Australian Tennis Great, was asked his opinion on Hank Aaron's record beating feat.
Rod replied, "Who is Hank Aaron?"
Years later, Barry Bonds would beat Aaron's record.
But this achievement was marred by charges of Bond's use of Performance Enhancing Drugs.
Gentlemanly Aaron never made this an issue.
Even now, many fans insist that Aaron is the legitimate Home Run King.
Evidence of Aaron's enduring fame is seen in the wall where his 715th home run ball landed.
The Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, where he hit the famous home run, was torn down for development.
But the wall, with "715" boldly inscribed, is still preserved in its original site.
Aaron's legacy extends beyond Baseball.
After his playing days, he became part of Atlanta Braves front office and later started several businesses.
Aaron contributed to several charities for advancement of African American education and other causes.
Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) books love to quote his words,
"My motto was always to keep swinging.
Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field,
the only thing to do was keep swinging".
Muhammad Ali called him, "the only man I idolize more than myself".
When Aaron spoke to the New York Times in 1990 about the cost of chasing a white man's record, he reflected the agony of multitude of Black men,
" My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away".
More recently, in an interview with USA Today in 2014, Aaron said he kept his racial ill treatment always in mind to remind himself "that we are not that removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this Country, but we have so far to go.
There is not a whole lot that has changed".
The "Hammer" scrutinized opposing pitchers all his playing days.
Later, he figured out the society for what it really is.