Hank Aaron died on Friday at the glorious age of 86. I doubt that I am the only person to have shared the news only to be met with “He was still alive?” or “You might as well tell me that Honus Wagner just passed away.”
This is one of those neat tricks of chronology, our human tendency to project those we revere backward into some impossibly remote past: the time of heroes, when the world was half shrouded in golden mist, before the magic left. For those of us whose earliest and fondest memories of the game are the Yankees dynasty of the ’90s and 2000s, this was almost literally true: Aaron was a figure of whom my grandfather spoke with the same hallowed tone he reserved for Pope Pius XII or Robert Jackson or Johnny Unitas.
In an official statement, Major League Baseball mourned the passing of “a son of the Deep South who soared above its poverty and racism to become one of the most consequential figures in American history.” That Aaron was, as so many had long ago declared him, the greatest hitter in the sport’s history is not, I think, the subject of much doubt. The tributes, from celebrity fans, civil rights organizations, world leaders, and, of course, fellow players, will continue to pour in. (How about President Biden declaring a National Day of Mourning, by the way?) But the most striking thing about them is how curiously inadequate they feel, how the accolades and the records — a surprising number of which remain on the books and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future — somehow come up short. They certainly pale in comparison to what, thanks to the miracle of recording technology, we are able to see for ourselves: that strangely lithe swing, the power seeming to come almost entirely from the wrists rather than the lower body, the result of pure finesse, not a pounding Wagnerian overture but a Liszt suite.
It is worth pointing out that we are already further removed from his playing career than the young Aaron was from the first World Series in 1903. Like Louis Armstrong, who witnessed the birth of jazz and lived to see bebop become passé, Aaron managed to bestride the entire history of modern professional baseball like some great pyramid.
Not just baseball history. When Aaron was a boy in the 1930s, subsisting for weeks with his seven siblings on nothing but cornbread, no child of his color could have imagined that he might one day be able to dine at a restaurant in downtown Mobile, much less that in the years to come a street in the great city once burned by Sherman would be named for him. (It ought to have been a stadium as well.) He lived to see, in what seems to have been a serene old age, the inauguration of an African-American president. But he had no illusions about the state of race relations in this country. (“The bigger difference is back then they had hoods,” he told an interviewer in 2014. “Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”)
Aaron was in many ways a more curious figure off the field than he is given credit for. (The rumors that he was a vegetarian are, unfortunately, based upon a misunderstanding of a remark about his childhood poverty.) At a time when Catholicism was nearly as suspect as the nascent civil rights movement in the political atmosphere of the Deep South, he was received into the Church and for many years kept a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis in his locker. He was, of all things, a devoted fan of the Cleveland Browns and often attended games incognito.
Aaron’s life is intimately bound up in a way that only a handful of others have been with the existence of a sport that represents one of America’s only unique contributions to civilization, along with football and jazz. He began his career in the world of Mantle and Mays and retired as Fisk and Steady Eddie were coming into their own. Giants really did walk the earth in those days. What his death reminds us is that they walked in our own as well.