The baseball world felt a certain disbelief—shock, even—on Jan. 22, 2021, with the suddenly viral news of Hank Aaron’s passing at age 86. The Hall of Fame slugger has always had an air of immortality. While his time on Earth may have ended, his stature as an athlete and as a man looms large, and always will.
John Thorn, official historian for Major League Baseball, puts Aaron’s impact in a most poetic way. “Henry Aaron's mark on the game,” Thorn says, “is one of unsurpassably consistent excellence, the sort that may be visible only at the finish line. He seemed the tortoise—and thus a winner of any race that required perseverance—rather than the hare.
“Aaron's legacy is in the record books,” Thorn adds, “but his fame is written upon the wind, inspiring all of us.”
Indeed, Hank Aaron wowed us with the most resilient, methodically productive career we’ve ever seen, but also exhibited a quiet confidence, resilience and dignity, even when dealing with the sad reality of death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s home run record.
In fact, his most unforgettable moment is the night he politely stepped past Ruth in 1974 by launching home run No. 715 over the left-field wall at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Yet Aaron’s career produced countless other amazing feats. That’s what happens when you play 23 seasons and amass 3,771 hits, 755 homers, 2,297 RBI and 2,174 runs while batting .305. His RBI total is still a record, as are his totals for extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856).
AARON’S LIFELONG MOTTO
The numbers are gaudy but the big story is how he compiled them: with a painstakingly methodical approach.
“He never hit more than 44 homers in a season, and he led the league in batting average only twice,” Thorn notes, “so it was easy to be surprised when he passed 600 home runs and kept on going, nearing Ruth's record of 714 at age 39.”
Aaron’s journey was as important as his destination. “There is a moral lesson in this, but also a practical one,” Thorn reminds us. “Aaron himself put it this way: ‘My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling bad or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.’"
Yet we’ve always wondered if Aaron has been celebrated enough. On the night he broke Ruth’s record, there was a notable absence at the ballpark: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Days earlier, Kuhn was in Cincinnati for the Reds/Braves’ Opening Day game and he saw Aaron hit No. 714. After that series, with Aaron still at 714, Kuhn opted not to follow the Braves as they traveled back to Atlanta.
Aaron took it as a snub, understandably so. And Kuhn’s decision followed him throughout his life: “It was probably the longest-lasting negative thing that carried with him,” author Marty Appel said during a podcast appearance just after Aaron’s death.
A GIANT AMONG GIANTS
Aaron did get named to 25 All-Star Games in his career, so it’s not like he was a wallflower. Yet he also didn’t cast a Ruth-sized shadow on the baseball landscape during his playing days, perhaps because he was a giant among many other giants: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench… the list from that glorious era goes on and on.
The truth is, Aaron set an extremely high bar for himself and stayed at a lofty level for so long that fans may have taken him for granted, at least until he started approaching Ruth’s record.
Has the collectibles market also been guilty of overlooking Aaron? Demand—and, by extension, pricing—for Aaron memorabilia has always trailed that of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. So it’s fair to make the case that Aaron has been underrated in the hobby.
“I wouldn’t say underrated—I’d say under-appreciated,” opines sports memorabilia expert Simeon Lipman. “But that’s been changing. Because of the whole steroid era, people—and collectors in general—have taken a second look at Aaron’s long career. His longevity, his consistency, is in a league of its own.”
A SOARING ROOKIE
Aaron’s elevation in the hobby is most apparent with his 1954 Topps rookie—“one of the most valuable cards there is right now, especially in high grade,” Lipman says.
In fact, Aaron’s rookie card has spiked over the past several years. In 2014, we reported on an Aaron rookie graded PSA 8.5 that sold for $13,000. Two years later, we saw another Aaron PSA 8.5 rookie sell for $88,420.
Just a half-grade lower, an 8-grade 1954 Aaron, brings prices between $30,000 and $40,000. But just a half-grade higher, a 9, produces a spike of many multiples. Aaron rookie cards graded PSA 9 have sold in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $210,000.
PSA’s population report shows an ultra-rare Gem-Mint 10 Aaron rookie that sold for $357,594. And that was before his passing. Today, as Lipman notes, “The sports card market is going ballistic,” so the recent increases in Aaron value are bound to continue surging.
Talk of Aaron’s memorabilia value, however, shouldn’t overshadow the man’s essence. This was a player who truly personified “grit.”
A popular buzzword in psychological circles these days, grit refers to the ability to persist, to persevere when you face obstacles. Merriam-Webster further defines grit as “a firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”
That was Hank Aaron.
“As a man, he projected grace and a studied dignity born of long suffering,” John Thorn says. “He had grown up with fear and then, as he neared Ruth's record, confronted it again on a massive scale. In baseball, he was at the top of an elite group. But as a Black man in America, he knew, as Jackie Robinson said, that he ‘never had it made.’”
Personal touch: Where were you on the night of “715”?
In writing this tribute, I couldn’t help but think of that night long ago when I watched Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. I was glued to the TV with dad at our home in Murrysville, Pa., and he had a tape-recorder running to capture the play-by-play. No, it’s not an extraordinary story—just a personal one reflecting the convergence of sports and Americana.
On the other hand, I asked baseball historian and author John Thorn about his own recollection of Aaron’s 715th. He was in the process of trying to reel in a major project: a screenplay for the “Eight Men Out” story of the Chicago Black Sox.
Thorn picks it up from there: “I had just had dinner at Gallagher's Restaurant, the famous steak joint that had started as a speakeasy in New York City, with Eliot Asinof. At the table, I signed a contract to option his book ‘Eight Men Out’ for a screenplay that my wife and I would set about to write—'The National Pastime,’ we were to call it, dripping with irony.
“Our screenplay failed to catch on, so John Sayles took the next shot at it. After inking our signatures at the table that night, we retired to Eliot's apartment at the Ansonia Hotel and watched Henry hit No. 715 there.”
We’d love to hear SCD readers’ recollections of Aaron’s record-breaking night. Send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org.