Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was regarded as one of the greatest baseball players ever. He hit 755 home runs to break Babe Ruth’s record, hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, and in 1982, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for holding the Major League Baseball records for the most career runs batted in (2,297), most extra base hits (1,477), and most total bases (6,856). As he closed in on Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 home runs, he was taunted by racists and responded always with restraint, dignity and grace.
Aaron died January 22, 2021 at his home in Atlanta, just a few days short of his 87th birthday. Anti-vaxxers immediately claimed that his death was due to the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine he had received at a Morehouse Healthcare clinic on Jan. 5, more than two weeks before his passing. This, of course, was completely unfounded.
Vaccination Ceremony as a Public Service
Aaron publicly received his COVID-19 vaccination in Atlanta with several other African American public figures, including human rights activist Dr. Joseph Henry Beasley, former U.N. Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young, and former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, to encourage other Black Americans to do the same. He told the Associated Press, “I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this . . . It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.” Andrew Young, a former congressman, mayor and U.S. ambassador, told the press, “I talked to the fella who was his driver, and I said, ‘was Hank feeling any discomfort or any problem over the last few days?’ and he said, ‘no, he wanted to keep his schedule.”
On the day of his death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that:
• after more than four million doses of the Moderna vaccine were administered between Dec. 21, 2020 and Jan. 10, 2021, there were only 10 cases of anaphylaxis, or “a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction.” These were treated and all recovered.
• Nine of the 10 anaphylaxis cases had a patient history of allergies or allergic reactions, including to drugs (six), contrast media (two), or foods (one).
• Five of the patients had experienced an episode of anaphylaxis in the past.
The Morehouse School of Medicine said the vaccine was not a factor in his death and that he did not suffer an allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine. The county medical examiner told reporters that, “There was no information suggestive of an allergic or anaphylactic reaction to any substance which might be attributable to recent vaccine distribution.” Aaron did have prostate disease, high blood pressure and such severe osteoarthritis that he had to have a partial hip replacement and use a wheelchair. Most reports said that he died of “natural causes,” which just means that there was no evidence of foul play or suicide. A report in USA Today (January 22, 2021) said that he died of a massive stroke. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for strokes.
Early Years and Career in Baseball
Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934, the third of eight children born to parents who were tavern owners and a dry dock boilermaker’s assistant. At age eight, he moved with his family to a middle-class neighborhood where he played baseball and football. In his junior year in high school, he transferred to the Josephine Allen Institute, a private school that had a baseball team. At age 18, he left school to play for the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns and was the star of the club that won the 1952 league’s World Series. He was signed by the Milwaukee Braves for $10,000 and won the minor Northern League Rookie of the Year honors in 1952. The next year he moved up to the Class A Jacksonville Braves and had a .362 batting average and hit 22 homers. At age 20, he was brought up to the major league Milwaukee Braves and hit .280 with 13 home runs. At 21, he established himself as one of the best. He hit 27 home runs, drove in 106 runs and had a .328 batting average. At age 22, he led Milwaukee to an upset World Series win over the favored New York Yankees in seven games. At age 39, he hit 40 home runs to finish with 713 home runs, one home run off Babe Ruth’s career record. When he retired two years later at age 42, he had 755 home runs, a record that held for more than 30 years.
As he closed in on Ruth’s 714 home run career record, he received up to 3,000 letters a day, some of which threatened him for seeking to break Ruth’s record. With great dignity, he continued to hit home runs and answered his critics only with a call for more black ownership and management positions in major league baseball.
After retiring from playing, he became executive vice president of the Atlanta Braves and worked to increase minority hiring in baseball. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at age 48 in 1982, and in 2002 at age 68, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lessons from Hammerin’ Hank’s Noble Life
Aaron’s extraordinary athletic skills made him among the best ever to play baseball and won him world-wide fame. He was a man who spent his life urging the most good for the most people, and he received his COVID-19 vaccination in a public ceremony to encourage other people to do the same. However, as is happening with other famous people, anti-vaxxers used his death to support their campaign to discredit the COVID-19 vaccination program. I suggest honoring his memory by doing what he asked — “a small thing that can help zillions of people.”
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron
February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021