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Baseball loses a legend

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

We in the sports media business throw the word hero around so casually, and rarely does it fit, but sometimes it absolutely and unequivocally does.

Hank Aaron died last week, leaving behind a legacy of unparalleled success on the baseball field, and of dignity and class off of it.

Hammerin’ Hank’s numbers are staggering, and no one in the history of the game has been more effective for a longer period of time.

Aaron is mostly known for his home runs, and he finished his legendary career with 755 of them, but he’s a top-five all-time performer in nearly every offensive category, whether it was RBIs, hits, walks, on-base percentage, total bases, doubles, singles, and on and on.

For more than two decades Aaron was one of the game’s top players, and remarkably he surpassed 40 home runs eight times, and on 15 occasions he hit at least 30 home runs.

Those are the numbers, and they are spectacular, but Aaron’s life and legacy can’t be measured in statistics.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Ala. during a time when segregation was still a sad an unfortunate way of life in this part of the world, when a mom told her son to hide under the bed when the KKK came marching through town,  and by the time he made it to the big leagues, the color barrier had only recently been broken by Jackie Robinson.

Like so many black baseball players of that era, Aaron dealt with prejudice and hate (a lot of it inside his own clubhouse), yet he persevered, quickly becoming one of the game’s elite players, and he maintained that status for 20 years.

As Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s home-run record in the early 70s, the vitriol and vile racism only grew, and he and his family dealt with a steady supply of hate mail and death threats, tarnishing what should have been the best time of his life.

In 1973 a plot to kidnap his daughter was uncovered, and he and his family were constantly surrounded by a security detail.

There was some bitterness there. How could there not be?

“It was supposed to be the greatest triumph of my life, but I was never allowed to enjoy it,” Aaron said at the time. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over.”

Yet Aaron would not let the racists and the bigots win.

He went about his career with his head held high, never allowing those who viewed him as “less than” because of his race to defeat him.

Throughout Aaron’s career, and in the decades following his retirement, he was a staunch supporter for other minorities involved in the game, and he was a civil-rights advocate who also broke barriers as an executive.

Aaron became a respected spokesperson whose words were measured and impactful, and he never stopped pushing for equality, and until his final days he was always willing to offer a hand to those in need.

I never met Aaron, but there is no athlete I’ve ever respected more, and I’m so grateful that he played much of his career in Atlanta, and that he made Georgia his home.

Aaron is everything that’s right about this country, and he was a Hall of Famer as a player, and as a person.

Thank you Mr. Aaron for the life you led, for your legacy of decency and philanthropy, and for being a beacon of light in a world that so desperately needs it.

You are the King.