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Bigger than Baseball: Hank Aaron’s legacy of breaking racial barriers

Hank Aaron batting
Posted at 6:38 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 23:40:28-05

MILWAUKEE — While the baseball world mourns the loss of one of its greats, the Civil Rights Community is feeling the loss of one of their own as well.

“He used his life to help others,” Dr. Eve Hall, President of the Milwaukee Urban League said. “That’s one of the first things I think about.”

Aaron was a trailblazer for the time. During his run at toppling Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, he and his family received death threats. He would have to sleep at a different hotel than his teammates, sneak out back doors and have extra security.

He told the New York Times in 1994, 20 years after he beat the record, "It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about.”

Emory Aaron Anniversary Baseball
A copy of a letter from 1973 sent to Hank Aaron as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record is seen at Emory University, Monday, April 7, 2014, in Atlanta. Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Aaron's 715th home run, one better than Ruth. Three Emory University baseball players teamed up last year to dig through the collection, including scouting reports, contracts and letters Aaron received, donated in 2013 by a former scout for the Atlanta Braves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

It was a motivator in him standing up for social justice. When it came to advancing racial equity, Hammerin’ Hank knocked it out of the park.

“He stood so strong with courage and perseverance when he beat Babe Ruth’s record,” Hall said. “He beat the record of a white male in baseball, but it also became an impetus to push social justice and recognize those who stood with him and behind him during some very challenging times in this country.”

Upon his retirement in 1976, Aaron left the MLB as the last Negro Leagues Player on a major league roster. Some of the biggest Civil Rights achievements of our time happened in the heart of his career.

His rookie season, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education saw the desegregation of schools. The very next year, Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of a public bus. In 1964, 10 years before he broke Babe Ruth’s record, the Civil Rights Act was passed. A year after that, the Voting Rights Act.

Still, Aaron continued his path to speaking out, paving the way for athletes today.

“I believe there was even more fear and it took more courage,” Hall said. “Sometimes, the protections that individuals get today, they did not get that back at that time.”

"He was a trailblazer,” Clarence P. Nicholas, President of the NAACP Milwaukee Chapter said. “Trailblazers carry a lot on their shoulders.”

Aaron Jackson
Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, founder and President of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, is joined by baseball great Hank Aaron, left, at a meeting of Operation PUSH at the Sheraton in Rosemont, Ill., Monday, June 29, 1987. Jackson said that a threatened boycott of major-league baseball has been called off because ownres have shown signs they are dedicated to hiring more minorities in the front office. (AP Photo/Mark Elias)

While Aaron trotted the 360 feet around the bases 755 times in his career, it did not compare to the path he walked after baseball. In the 1980s, Aaron stood shoulder to shoulder with the Reverend Jesse Jackson during an effort to increase diversity in Major League Baseball front offices. He also had the ear of nearly every president since the 1970s. From Gerald Ford, to Jimmy Carter and later, George W. Bush who bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Aaron; the highest civilian honor.

Hank Aaron, Jimmy Carter, Sherman Tribbitt
Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, right, and Delaware Gov. Sherman Tribbitt say hello to Atlanta Braves Hank Aaron, left, following a rain canceled game with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Thursday, Sept. 27, 1973, Atlanta, Ga. The cancellation slowed Aaron’s opportunity to tie or break Babe Ruth’s home run record. (AP Photo)

Those achievements are some of what led Nicholas to where he is today.

“I’m here because of some of the attributes he showed,” Nicholas said. “With his presence of mind in terms of wanting to make a difference with people.”

Nicholas had a lot of idols growing up. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, all of them motivating him in one way or another. But Hank Aaron’s impact still affects him.

“Young children of all ethnicities wanted his autograph,” Nicholas said. “He was warm in doing so, even hugging them. It made a difference.”

Oftentimes, people will throw around the term “bigger than baseball.” It’s usually referring to an event, tragic or inspiring, that reminds viewers that this is just a simple game. But Aaron lived that.

Even in the final weeks of his life, he was trying to make an impact. Earlier this month, he rolled up his sleeve to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He was trying to encourage the African American community, one that hasn’t always trusted the medical community, to have faith.

“He as trying to make a statement,” Hall said. “Do not be afraid. Let’s get this vaccine and try to be healthy. I’ll serve as a role model and example so that others will not be afraid. He was huge on the stage in baseball. That was his work but his passion was around making a difference and using his platform for social change and social justice. That, to me, symbolizes a man who looked beyond himself. Looked at causes greater than himself to make a difference.”

Aaron’s cause of death has not been disclosed.

A painting of Hank Aaron near the trail bearing his name.
A painting of Hank Aaron near the trail bearing his name.

Now, a 14 mile stretch of trail winds its way through Milwaukee. It falls just to the south of where he mashed homeruns. But his truest legacy lives on in an almost literal form; a blazed trail connecting Milwaukee’s most diverse neighborhoods together for the rest of time.

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