Henry Aaron and American Memory

2008 MLB All-Star Parade, Hank Aaron (Ben Lei/Flickr)

The recent death of Henry Aaron sparked remembrances of both his legendary playing career and his longer fight for civil rights. Described in the New York Times as someone who “prevailed in the face of hate mail and even death threats,” Aaron’s life was eulogized by numerous people—both inside and outside the sports world—who all agreed that he faced the racism of his era with humility and grace. Aaron’s passing has served as another opportunity for American society to eulogize a pivotal figure in Black history by pushing the racism that person faced into the dustbin of history. It would be a mistake, however, to merely memorialize Aaron as a figure of “grace” or “humility.” Instead, it makes him a greater figure to remember that he was  a human being stung by the racism of the era.

“It still hurts a little bit inside because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again,” Aaron said in 2006. Aaron’s journey from Alabama during the Great Depression to the Negro Leagues and the minor leagues of the American South in the early 1950s, to superstardom in Milwaukee and Atlanta, is symbolic of how the Great Migration was often a winding path for many Black Americans—sometimes even bringing them (or their descendants) back South. But Aaron never forgot the experiences of chasing the home run record of Babe Ruth.  His experience was akin to that of Jackie Robinson, who suffered severe racist abuse during his playing career for being the first Black player in Major League Baseball in the twentieth century. But both men are now, like so many other Black American figures in history, at risk of being lionized without the American public properly understanding what they went through.

This is the same critique from Black historians and activists alike that accompanies every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and every Black History Month. Last June, on Black Perspectives, Jeanne Theoharis lamented how most public figures ignored “King’s longstanding record calling out police brutality and northern injustice.” Or, as Maurice Hobson wrote in 2018, “Today, King’s legacy has fallen prey to exploitation and capitalism and suffered a whitewashing—a revised history that simplifies his legacy into a sanitized narrative devoid of complexities.” The mainstream memory of the Black American past is often morphed into this, and that has been especially true of Jackie Robinson. It seems it will also happen to the memory of Henry Aaron.

Robinson himself was a stalwart critic of racism in American life. While he, like Aaron, has been remembered for his “grace” in dealing with on the field racism, we should not forget that Robinson played with a tenacity on the baseball diamond inspired partially by the seething anger he had towards those who constantly hounded him for the color of his skin. He was also outspoken against racism during his playing career. In 1949, at a testimony before the U.S. Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Robinson criticized American racism and cautioned  the nation from potentially turning more Black Americans against the United States: “White people must realize that the more a Negro hates communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate any other influence that kills off democracy in this country—and that goes for racial discrimination in the Army, and segregation on trains and  buses, and job discrimination because of religious beliefs or color or place of birth.”

Robinson and Aaron were also outspoken about how African Americans were treated within the game of baseball—another fact that should not be forgotten in the face of how both are now recognized for their “grace” in enduring racism. Before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, Robinson said, “I’d like to live to see a black manager, I’d like to live to see the day when there’s a black man coaching at third base.” Robinson would be dead nine days later. He would not live long enough to see a Black manager in baseball.

Likewise, after his playing days were over, Aaron was outspoken about the need for more Black Americans to serve in positions of authority in Major League Baseball. He skipped a ceremony in his honor in 1980 hosted by MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn due to the latter’s no-showing his record-breaking evening of hitting home run 715 in Atlanta, Georgia on April 8, 1974. But Aaron also lamented “lack of employment opportunities given black ballplayers after their retirement.” That both Robinson and Aaron spoke out on the lack of upper-level positions held by Black Americans is especially striking, as Major League Baseball in 2021 struggles with Black participation at all levels of the game—on the playing field, in the dugout as managers, and in front offices. 

The long memory of the Black freedom struggle must not be warped and reshaped to fit “mainstream” needs. Such memorialization will continue to be hampered by a need to put racism in the past, instead of understanding how such racism changes form over time. The memories of Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron, two Americans reviled by many of their compatriots during their playing days but embraced by virtually everyone now, are but the sports phase of a nationwide problem—the problem of properly remembering a painful past. 

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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.