When the great Henry Aaron passed away Friday unexpectedly in his sleep, it was another big hit to the Major League community in general, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in particular.
Aaron was the 10th member of the hallowed Hall to die since Al Kaline passed last April 6. To put that in perspective, the most members of the Hall to perish in a calendar year previously was six in 1972. Seven died last year and three more in a 15-day period, beginning this Jan. 5 with Tommy Lasorda.
The complete list includes a plethora of MLB greats: Kaline, Aaron, Lasorda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, who died of cancer in Atlanta on the day Lasorda, his old Dodgers manager, was buried in Los Angeles.
Aaron’s death came only days prior to Tuesday night’s event revealing the Hall’s possible Class of 2021. The announcement of the vote by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is scheduled at 6:15 p.m. ET Tuesday on MLB Network.
“Hank in particular was so unexpected,” Tim Mead, the president of the Hall of Fame, said in an exclusive interview Friday. “You look at what the Cardinals family went through [losing Brock and Gibson]. Then you look at the Braves with Sutton, Phil and Hank. I don’t know if there’s a way to properly describe it or put it into context.”
Sutton, who won 324 games in 23 seasons, pitching 16 of them for the Dodgers, spent decades broadcasting Braves games.
The Hall has lost an entire generation in recent years, including Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Dick Williams and Ralph Kiner. Before that, it lost a pair of much younger members: Tony Gwynn, who died of cancer at 54 in 2014, and Kirby Puckett, who was 45 in 2006 when he suffered a major stroke. That leaves only 72 living of the 333 with plaques in the Hall.
Willie Mays, at 89, is the oldest remaining of the 263 enshrined players. He’s followed by Whitey Herzog also at 89, Luis Aparicio and former commissioner Bud Selig at 86, and Sandy Koufax at 85.
“These are all special men,” said Mead, who as vice president of communications for the Angels over the years worked with Sutton, plus living Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson and Nolan Ryan. “We’ve lost, as the Hall of Fame family, 10 distinguished members of this family, and that is challenging. But you’re also reminded that 10 organizations are affected, more certainly for the players who played in multiple organizations, and the game of baseball is saddened by it. And then there are the communities they were part of long after their careers….
“That sadness is felt by countless numbers of people.”
When asked about Aaron, Mead added: “I just get back to what I tweeted about earlier, that he may rise above his own legacy.”
In baseball terms, Aaron is the only player in MLB history to amass more than 700 home runs (755), 3,000 base hits (3,771), 2,000 RBIs (2,297) and 2,000 runs scored (2,174). Alex Rodriguez fell just four homers short of reaching all four of those milestones. Aaron’s still the all-time leader in runs batted in, second in home runs, third in hits and fourth in runs scored.
Many consider Aaron to be the greatest player of all time, and certainly that case can be made as a right-handed hitter. From the left side, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds gave him a run for his money. The three are inextricably linked. Aaron passed Ruth at 715 homers to break the all-time record, and Bonds ultimately passed the two of them, finishing his career with 762.
Bonds, when contacted, said he was crestfallen by the death of Aaron and needed some time alone, “to gather myself.”
“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,” Bonds posted on Twitter.
Aaron was also considered a civil rights leader, having endured much racial abuse during his chase of Ruth. He was more than gracious on Aug. 7, 2007, the night Bonds broke his record, recording a video tribute that was played to the sellout crowd at what was then called AT&T Park after Bonds hit the homer off Washington pitcher Mike Bacsik. The chase had come during the swirl of controversy about Bonds using performance-enhancing drugs and a federal investigation into the former San Francisco Bay Area drug clinic named BALCO.
Many wondered whether Aaron would recognize Bonds’ feat. The video came as a surprise, but that was the type of person Aaron was.
“Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans; he was a true Hall of Famer in every way,” said Selig, who as owner of the Brewers brought his old friend back to Milwaukee to finish his career where it started before the Braves moved to Atlanta.
Selig recalled that not long ago, walking down a Washington, D.C., street with Aaron, they discussed their friendship of 60 years.
“Hank then said: ‘Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a black kid from Mobile, Alabama, would break Babe Ruth’s home run record, and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the commissioner of baseball?’ My wife, Sue, and I are terribly saddened and heartbroken by [his] passing,” Selig said.
As commissioner, Selig was in the building the night Bonds tied Aaron’s record a few days earlier at Petco Park in San Diego, but he was not in San Francisco that night for the record-breaker.