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Billy Reed: Remembering Hank Aaron who was a baseball superstar and a man of grace, elegance

When it was obvious that Henry Aaron was ready for baseball’s major leagues, he received contract offers from the New York Giants and Milwaukee Braves. He signed with the Braves only because their offer was $50 higher. As Aaron observed years later, “That $50 is all that kept Willie Mays and I from being teammates.”

It is difficult to imagine a team with Mays in center field and Aaron in right. They were very much alike in their production, but completely different in how they played the game. To this day, both would belong on anybody’s all-time, all-star team.

Because of his all-out style, Mays was easily the most noticeable. His enduring image is the time he went deep into center at New York’s Polo Grounds, making a running, over the shoulder catch of a smash by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz, then whirling with his cap flying off to return the ball to the infield.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

That catch helped the Giants upset the Indians to win the World Series. It also burnished Mays’ image as a multi-talented star whose combination of show biz, excellence, and personality made him the perfect hero for his native New York.

By contrast, Aaron’s trademarks were grace and elegance. He glided rather than ran. He made hard plays look routine. And he had wrists so strong that the bat was a whip, not a bludgeon, in his hands.

Once the esteemed writer Dave Kindred asked Aaron to describe the difference between he and Mays. Replied Aaron, “I did everything Willie did…except my cap didn’t fly off.”

Mays had been with the Giants for three years when Aaron joined the Braves in 1954, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools with his historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Interestingly, both Mays and Aaron were native sons of Alabama, a Confederate state that would take its own sweet time in observing the law of the land. They didn’t comment about the decision because they weren’t asked. Black athletes, even great ones, were expected to know their place in our segregated society.

Even for purposes of comparison, I will not bore you with a recitation of all the records set by Aaron and Mays. Only one deserves special attention, and that is Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs.

As Aaron inched closer to the record, he was threatened, cursed and scorned by racists who didn’t want a black man to break a white man’s record. The Braves were forced to hire a secretary with the sole task of handling his hate mail, and Aaron had to hire security to protect his home and family.

The ugliness affected him mentally. Every time he went on the field, he had to wonder if there was a sniper in the crowd.

At the start of the 1974 season, Aaron had 713. The Braves opened with a three-game series at Cincinnati, and Aaron tied Ruth’s record on April 4 with a homer against Jack Billingham on the first swing of his first at-bat.

The Braves went home to Atlanta to play host to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Aaron broke Ruth’s record on April 8, slamming an Al Downing pitch into the Braves’ bullpen. As Aaron rounded third, his historic moment was stained by two college students, who somehow eluded security and accompanied Aaron in his final strides to the plate.

Traded to the Milwaukee Brewers on Nov. 2, 1974, Aaron retired after the 1976 season. For his 23-year career, Aaron averaged 32 homers and 99 runs batted in with a batting average of .305.

During the 2006 season, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco (formerly New York) Giants passed Ruth’s record and took aim at Aaron’s career record of 755 homers. He got it on Aug. 7, 2007, but some critics said Bonds’ record was tainted by his well-documented cocaine usage.

Still graceful after all those years, Aaron asked fans to accept Bonds’ achievement. But his plea fell on a lot of deaf ears. To this day, many fans still regard Aaron as baseball’s home-run king.

Between his retirement and death on Friday, Aaron spent a lot of his time accepting awards and tributes. He also became a businessman, philanthropist, and tireless worker for social justice. One reason Aaron was beloved by both blacks and whites was his backstory of racism.

Once, for example, one of his minor-league teams had breakfast in a diner near Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. As they were leaving, they could hear the staff breaking plates in the kitchen.

“What a horrible sound,” Aaron said. “Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.”

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