The Tom Johnson Lecture Series presents a conversation with Hank Aaron at the LBJ Presidential Library on January 22, 2014. Photo by Lauren Gerson.

Baseball great Hank Aaron, award winning actress Cicely Tyson, die within days of each other

Aaron broke records and advocated for Black people his whole career.

Many of us, if we’re fortunate, live to be a ripe old age.  The heroes and “sheroes” we admire as examples of courage, strength, and persistence, age with us. For years they demonstrate how to achieve our goals despite racism and other social barriers. Suddenly, they’re gone. In the words of a song by Black women’s a cappella singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, “They are falling all around me .  .  . the strongest leaves of my tree.”

Recently, two renowned figures in sports and in acting died; Baseball legend Henry Aaron,  86, died on January 22. He was nicknamed “Hammerin’ Hank” for his ability as a power hitter. Cicely Tyson, star of stage, television, and film, died January  28 at age 96.

Aaron’s batting skill enabled him to break the late baseball phenomenon Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs: 755, compared to Ruth’s 714. Aaron’s record remained unbroken until August 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit his 756th home run.

One of seven children, Aaron grew up in poverty in and around Mobile, Alabama. Since his parents couldn’t buy him baseball equipment, Aaron used sticks and bottle caps for bats and balls, and anything else he found to learn to bat.  He played in Negro League and minor league teams before signing with the Atlanta Braves in 1952.

Hank Aaron talking to Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office in 1978. Carter White House Photographs Collection

Aaron began “chasing” Ruth’s home run record while playing with the Braves and broke it while playing with the Milwaukee Brewers. While playing professionally, Aaron and his family were flooded with racist hate mail and death threats by white baseball fans, angered that their hero’s batting achievement was surpassed by a Black man.

After his career ended, Aaron purchased car dealerships in Georgia and 30 restaurants nationally.  He founded the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation in Milwaukee to help low-income young people ages nine to 12  realize their career ambitions.

Concerned that not enough Black people are taking vaccines to protect against COVID-19, Aaron joined other celebrities in Atlanta on January 5 to be videotaped getting the shot.  “I was proud to get the COVID-19 vaccine earlier today at Morehouse School of Medicine,” he tweeted. “I hope you do the same.”  A Fulton County Medical Examiner spokesperson in Atlanta confirmed that Aaron died from natural causes, not the vaccine.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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