Hank Aaron Is the Greatest Professional Athlete of All Time

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Courtesy of apardavila (Flickr CC0)

When it comes to professional sports, I am one of the luckiest people in the world. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I had become a fan of all four major sports; baseball, basketball, football, and hockey.

In the 1950s many professional football players were required to play both offense and defense. Quarterbacks were football players who were not protected from physical contact. I watched the incredible players in the NBA, including the legendary battles between Wilt Chamberlin and Bill Russell. In hockey, I was blessed to see Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard pave the way for future greats including Wayne Gretzky.

Hank Aaron Is the Greatest Professional Athlete of All Time

There is little doubt that for me Hank Aaron was the greatest player of all time. “Hammerin’” Hank displayed enormous courage, and integrity matching his enormous talent and work ethic.

Although it was on television, I had the privilege of watching many of the greatest professional baseball players of all time, including Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Aaron, and many, many others.

Courtesy of Aaron Vowels (Flickr CC0)

Aaron’s memorable career began in 1954 and ended in 1976. Although scoring 755 home runs will be his most remembered accomplishment, he still holds major league records: RBIs, 2,29; total bases, 6,856; and extra-base hits, 1,477. Aaron ranks among the highest of the MLB’s best: third all-time hits, 3,771; third in games played, 3,298; and fourth in runs scored, 2,174.

However, what impressed me more than Aaron’s career, was his character as a man, and his ability to ignore enormous racial attacks including threats against his life.

I did not have the privilege of seeing Jackie Robinson play the game, but I am sure there is a great similarity between him and Aaron.

In 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was on a baseball team called the “Dodgers.” At 13-years old, I was very excited. I went to my first game at the Los Angeles Coliseum that same year and was in awe. Gil Hodges, Duke Snyder, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax were just a few of the players who had moved from Brooklyn.

I was at the new “Dodger Stadium” on “Roy Campanella night” when Johnny Roseboro stole home against our rival, the San Francisco Giants, and pitcher Juan Marichal. The crowd went wild.

As he neared Ruth’s all-time record, the threats became more frequent. Every away game, and even during some at Fulton County Stadium, he was verbally attacked. But nothing would stop Aaron: he was on a mission.

In 1968, McClain ended the season with a record of 31-6. No professional pitcher will ever win 30 games in one year again. And I watched Hank Aaron surpass Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record when he slammed his 715th on April 8, 1974, against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. He would end his exemplary career with 755 “dingers.”

I never thought about it when I was young, but I enjoyed “white privilege” although my mother, brother, and I were poor. All I had to do on the athletic field or on the basketball court was to perform. I did not have to prove my worth as a young man, my athletic ability granted me acceptance with nearly everyone.

But Aaron constantly had to prove himself, like all other Black men and women who grew up in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.  Although he was extremely talented, that was not good enough for many white Americans.

For millions of our nation’s people very little has changed over the last 400 years. Black Americans were not freed on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They still had to prove themselves, and for some whites, even that was not enough.

One of the biggest lies I heard throughout my life, is “America is the greatest country in the world.” The United States has never been a “great country.” As long as racism is pervasive in our nation, the Constitution is just a piece of paper.

We should all strive to follow the examples established by Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson.

Op-ed by James Turnage


ESPN: Longtime MLB home run king Hank Aaron dies at 86
National Baseball Hall of Fame: Hank Aaron
Baseball-Reference: Henry Aaron

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of apardavila’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image Courtesy of Aaron Vowels’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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