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Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and God’s Beautiful Providence

I love my home state of Alabama, which is known for many things, some good and some bad. It is the home state of two Major League Baseball (MLB) all-time greats: Henry Aaron and Willie Mays. The two baseball heroes, inextricably connected, were not fond of one another. And, sadly, as of this week, neither is with us any longer.

Henry Aaron was born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, and died on January 22, 2021, at 86. Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama (a few minutes outside Birmingham), and died June 18, 2024, at 93. Both men came of age amid the Depression-era poverty of racially segregated Alabama. Both started their professional baseball careers in the Negro Leagues.

Their MLB statistical accomplishments are staggering and eerily similar. Mays played in 3,005 MLB games, and Aaron in 3,298 games. Mays had a career .301 batting average, Aaron .305. Mays hit 660 home runs, Aaron hit 755. Mays ended his career with a slugging percentage of .557, and Aaron .555. Both were on one World Championship team. Mays was an All-Star 24 times, and Aaron 25 times.

Even long-awaited 600-page biographies of the two baseball legends came out in the same year (2010): James S. Hirsch’s Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, and Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. According to Aaron, he and Mays almost became teammates. Aaron had a Giants contract in hand, which would have put him in the same outfield as Mays, who was already a big leaguer. But the Braves offered him a contract worth $50 a month more.

But beyond hailing from the same home state and their nearly parallel statistical accomplishments, the two men could not have been much more different. They spent their adult lives being compared and contrasted, contributing to an uneasy relationship.

Differing Personalities

Willie Mays was a magical baseball player who loved the spotlight and possessed a mile-wide smile. He was one of those players who so obviously loved playing the game. When you watched Mays, you did not forget that it was, in fact, a game. Mays was known as the “Say Hey Kid,” his iconic over-the-shoulder basket catch in the World Series is known as “the Catch.” Some people have suggested Mays purposely broke late on some balls to make catches more spectacular. Mays was an entertainer who sought to maximize his star power.

Henry Aaron was quiet and played baseball unassumingly, remarkable for someone with his abilities on the diamond. In Bryant’s biography, he takes great pains to explain that for Henry, “Hank” was an invented persona foisted upon him when he broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding iconic home run record. No one who really knew him called him Hank. Aaron was not flashy; he was relentlessly consistent. Legendary announcer Vin Scully described Aaron as a man who played baseball with a “poker face.” When Aaron finally broke Ruth’s home run record, he stated, “I just thank God that it’s all over with.”

The truth is that Mays and Aaron’s personal differences led to a lack of appreciation for each other. Mays, ever the marketer, often spoke of his longtime friendship with Aaron, while Henry was almost always polite when Mays’s name was mentioned. Still, Aaron never suggested they were personally close, because they were not. Mays was bothered by the fact that Aaron, not himself, broke Ruth’s home run record. He was consistent with backhanded compliments like, “Hank might just catch Ruth. . . . He’s playing in the right park.”

One of the few times Aaron said something negative about Mays, it was, “If any part of me was not satisfied with Willie, it’s that he didn’t speak out enough [on the issue of civil rights]. I couldn’t understand that part of it. I never spoke to him about it. I just let it be.” Any of the on-the-field animosity Aaron and Mays had for one another was less than the off-the-field, where their differences were profound.

Contrasting Approaches to Civil Rights

For Mays, Aaron and other critics failed to recognize that he was leading by example. Hirsch wrote, “Mays countered discrimination on his own terms in ways that he understood—as a role model who never drank or smoked, who avoided scandal, and who gave his time and money to children’s causes.” Mays contended that he could change the minds of racists with his character, play, and passion for the game. He said, “I changed the hatred to laughter.”

Aaron and others felt that Mays was living at odds with Jackie Robinson’s assertion, “I never had it made” (the title of his autobiography). They considered Mays unconcerned about the plight of other black Americans who did not have the privileges his baseball stardom afforded him. Robinson said, “People have asked me, ‘Jack, what’s your beef? You’ve got it made.’ I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made” and “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” Mays believed that his making it (having it made) would make it easier for others to make it after him.

Mays believed that his making it would make it easier for others to make it after him.

Aaron revered Jackie Robinson and felt responsible for building on his legacy in the fight for civil rights, but he did not possess Robinson’s brashness or eloquence. Aaron did not want to be labeled a troublemaker; he did not trust the media to cover him fairly. But he did want to make a genuine difference in the political and cultural world beyond baseball. In 1960, Aaron campaigned for presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy. In September 1968, Jet magazine published a feature on Aaron, “Hank Aaron Blasts Racism in Baseball.” Aaron addressed the lack of black managers, the absence of minorities in the front office of MLB clubs, and salary discrepancies between black and white players. Being an outspoken activist about political and justice issues did not come naturally to Aaron. Still, he felt a responsibility to overcome his reticence in a way that Mays did not.

Valuing Both Approaches

So, who was right? Mays or Aaron? As a lifelong Braves fan, I am partial to Aaron as a player and a person.

However, perhaps we should appreciate both Mays and Aaron’s approaches. Both men shone on the baseball field like few others. But they also made a positive difference beyond baseball in the face of insidious hatred. Today’s world is not fond of nuance or appreciation of differences, but we should be. The biblical testimony of God’s beautiful providence should convince us that he uses all kinds of people and approaches to accomplish his ends.

The biblical testimony of God’s beautiful providence should convince us that he uses all kinds of people and approaches to accomplish his ends.

Aaron ought to be honored for his sense of responsibility to speak up for others who never had the opportunities or platform he possessed. But I will also never forget hearing theology professor Tom Nettles tell how the controversy over Willie Mays moving into a white neighborhood awakened his gospel-informed conscience about racism as a young man. Nettles thought to himself, Who would not want Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player in the world, to be their neighbor? Nettles’s testimony reflects what Mays believed his influence could accomplish.

Every true baseball fan cannot help but appreciate the exploits of Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Willie Mays on the baseball field. Aaron received 97.8 percent and Mays 94.7 percent for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But maybe in their deaths, we can appreciate their influence on the cause of racial justice beyond the baseball field.

May they rest in peace, and may we be thankful to God’s providence for the measure of temporal peace their lives helped bring to a world in great need of it.

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