Jimmy Carter and Henry Aaron in the White House, 1978. Carter had been Georgia governor and present in Fulton County Stadium when Aaron hit number 715 four years previously.

People have been texting and emailing over the course of the day with the news and their thoughts on the passing today of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron. I don’t know what I have to say about his career and life that others have not said already, so I won’t go in to them too deeply. Still I felt it necessary to take a few minutes and recognize the man and everything he represented, and I don’t mean merely on the playing field.

One of my most vivid memories as a baseball fan was watching him hit number 715 off Al Downing, the Dodger pitcher destined to become a trivia question. There is a great recording of Frank Sinatra doing a live show in New York City and mentioning to the audience from the stage that Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record. Sinatra even mention Downing by name. Like most people, I had no idea what the man was forced to endure. I remember being excited in the late 1990s when players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were breaking home run records seemingly every year. In September 1998 a friend and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there in the front entranceway was McGwire and Sosa’s memorabilia. Did we happily pose for pictures in front of it all? Of course we did.

My friend and I were hardly alone in our excitement. Most Americans got caught up in it. Looking back with twenty plus years of hindsight it all seems so tawdry, and I don’t just mean because many players of the era were/are alleged to have taken performance enhancing steroids. I know that previous eras had their own similar scandals which, as with steroids, were often hushed up by people in position to do something about it. In the 1950s-70s that usually meant the amphetamines, or “greenies” as players called them, that some used to get through the grind that is a major league season. All that said, there was something obscene about so many players hitting so many home runs day in and day out as they were in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron exhibition, Hinomisaki Park 2013

I love the photograph directly above of Aaron’s Braves uniform juxtaposed with that of Sadaharu Oh, the slugger who for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball hit more home runs than any other professional player. Football is America’s passion and soccer has always been the world’s leading sport. Basketball has come into it own over the past several decades on the international level–long gone are the days when the Americans could assume the Olympic gold medal. One however should never underestimate baseball’s cultural reach. Today one of baseball’s greatest and most dignified men has left us. It’s all very difficult to process.

(images: White House staff photographers, NARA; Motokoka, Wikimedia Commons)