There were three decades between their home-run record chases, which were radically different. And yet, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds will forever be entwined in history.
Aaron faced virtually unparalleled scorn for an MLB legend, many not comfortable with a Black man closing in on a slice of Babe Ruth’s history. Death threats emerged to the point that when Aaron surpassed Ruth in 1973, it was more relief than happiness. It was over.
Bonds chasing down Aaron was cloaked in controversy substantially different, rumors of performance-enhancing drugs tainting an image that already was not pristine largely because of his rough dealings with the media.
Linked, though, until the end.
“I want to send my heartfelt and warmest condolences to the Aaron family on their loss today,” Bonds said in a statement Friday, after the 86-year-old Aaron died. “I was lucky enough to spend time with Hank on several occasions during my career and have always had the deepest respect and admiration for all that he did both on and off the field. He is an icon, a legend and a true hero to so many, who will forever be missed.
“Hank Aaron — thank you for everything you ever taught us, for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ball players who came after you. Being able to grow up and have the idols and role models I did, help shape me for a future I could have never dreamed of. Hank’s passing will be felt by all of us who love the game and his impact will forever be cemented in my heart.”
The tributes poured through in the hours after the Hall of Famer’s loss crushed the baseball world.
“He was second only to my dad, and my dad meant the world to me,” Dusty Baker told MLB.com.
Astros manager Dusty Baker, reached this morning in California, was devastated to learn of the passing of friend and mentor Hank Aaron, saying: "He was second only to my dad, and my dad meant the world to me." pic.twitter.com/x0P5MNfDmc
— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) January 22, 2021
It is possible to calculate Aaron’s impact on the game itself, even if his Negro League stats are still being worked into Major League Baseball history. What is more difficult to measure is the man who inspired generations. A real-life hero.
“His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history – and find a way to shine like no other.”