Tufts Baseball Community Reflects on the Legacy of Hank Aaron

Aaron, who received an honorary degree from Tufts in 2000, overcame persistent racism to become the home run hero of the nation

Henry “Hank” Aaron was one of the best baseball players of all time, and broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974. He had a Tufts connection, too, receiving an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree at commencement on May 21, 2000. He died on Jan. 22, at age 86.

He started playing baseball in the Negro League in 1951, and was signed by the Braves, playing minor league ball for two years. Like all other Black players, he was subject to continuing racism; in the minor leagues and early in his major league career he and other Black teammates were forced to eat and sleep separately from their white teammates. The racist attacks grew as Aaron neared Babe Ruth’s home run record in the early 1970s.

He became the home run king when he hit his 715th on April 8, 1974, beating Ruth’s record. With a lifetime batting average of .305, several Gold Gloves, and a World Series ring, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1982.

“Off the field, he was kind of quiet and reserved—very humble,” said Miles Reid, A22, a member of the Tufts baseball team. “I think that just speaks volumes. He didn’t really change his attitude toward life or his attitude toward the people around him just because he was so popular—and it was new-found popularity for someone of color at that point as well.”

For head baseball coach John Casey, A80, Aaron was his hero. “When I think of him, all I can think of is dignity and grace,” he said. “Just watching him play the game was amazing. I remember an interview when he talked about people being so impressed with him stealing 40 bases and hitting 40 home runs in a year, and he just looked at the guy and said, ‘Wow, if I knew it was that important, I would’ve done it every year.’”

Steve Cohen, a longtime senior lecturer in the Department of Education and faculty liaison to the baseball team, tells the story of seeing Aaron play baseball in person—the first time when he was a youngster growing up in Queens. “I saw Henry Aaron play at the Polo Grounds in 1963, when I was in sixth grade,” said Cohen.

“They took us from PS 117 to the game. The Mets were playing the Braves, and as usual, fell behind 9 to 1. I remember this game so well because they tied it up, and then they made us go home—and the Mets lost in extra innings,” he said. “I also saw him play in 1966 at Shea Stadium. And I went to opening day at Fenway in 1975. I bought standing room to see him as a Milwaukee Brewer in his one year in the American League. So I saw Aaron play in three different stadiums over two decades.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu and Jenna Schad can be reached at jenna.schad@tufts.edu.

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