Henry “Hank” Aaron is the recipient of the 2020 Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship, the pinnacle honor bestowed at the Musial Awards. It recognizes an iconic sports figure who exemplifies sportsmanship and embodies the class, dignity, generosity, excellence, civility, and integrity for which Stan The Man was known.
Long before he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, Henry Aaron set his sights on Stan Musial’s record for career hits. Long after he surpassed both, his link to Stan has grown stronger with the Musials’ pinnacle honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
But even before aiming at Babe or Stan, Henry chose Jackie Robinson as his role model, “not only for the baseball he played but the person he was.” Born in Mobile, Ala., Henry grew up entrenched in racism but adopted Jackie’s blueprint for success on and off the diamond. He once skipped high school to attend a speech by Jackie, only to inadvertently take a seat next to his own father. “I don’t need to tell you what happened after. It was worth it,” he said.
Through his playing career with Milwaukee and Atlanta, Henry modeled much of his game after Stan, going about his business with consistent excellence, class and dignity in the face of bigotry. At key moments, Stan was a presence. Just before one of the first of his record 24 All-Star Game appearances, Henry sat down to play cards with Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks. Stan walked over and said, “Deal me in,” his way of including Black players when other white players didn’t. “And Stan didn’t play cards,” Henry recalled.
In 1966, Henry and Stan were roommates on a postseason goodwill tour of Vietnam. “We got to be friends, teammates, so to speak,” he said. “I really enjoyed him.” And when Henry reached 3,000 hits in 1970, “He came all the way from St. Louis … and honored me with his presence to pay tribute,” Henry said.
As he approached Babe Ruth’s record, the racial taunts grew louder and more frequent, taking the form of hate mail and threats. Henry read them all and kept them all. “I … was sending a signal to the world that all we wanted to do was to have the playing field leveled,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Just give us an opportunity.” He seized his opportunity on April 8, 1974, breaking Babe’s record with his 715th home run.
Because he played his final two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, who at the time played in the American League, Henry fell short of Stan’s then-NL record of 3,630 hits, though he passed Stan in career hits, with 3,771. But Henry matched Stan by playing his entire career without being ejected from a game. “I think that’s one thing I can brag about,” he said. “There were things I was put out there to do: play the game. I couldn’t umpire. The umpire did that.”
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, Henry subsequently broke barriers Jackie couldn’t: in baseball management, becoming the Braves’ vice president of player development. And Major League Baseball cemented his supremacy when it established the Hank Aaron Award in 1999, given to the top hitter in each league as selected by the fans and media. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2002. And in 2019, MLB’s youth tournament to increase diversity in the sport was renamed the Hank Aaron Invitational.
Though Barry Bonds surpassed his home run mark in 2007, Henry’s 2,297 career RBIs and 6,856 total bases remain major league records. More important to Henry, though, is the legacy of his Chasing the Dream Foundation, which partners with the Boys & Girls Clubs and endows 12 college scholarships.
“I don’t want to be remembered as someone with 700 home runs or a .300 batting average,” he said, “but as someone who did a little bit more than that to help mankind.”