All plaques are the same size in the Hall of Fame gallery. Officially, Aaron and Mays share the same status as Elmer Flick and High Pockets Kelly. Unofficially, a few rise far above the rest.
“Reggie used to say there’s Hall of Famers and then there’s really Hall of Famers,” Palmer said with a laugh. “Maybe only Reggie can say it, but it’s true: This is Hank Aaron! When you think of the great players, you think of Ted Williams, you think of Stan Musial, you think of Willie Mays. I mean, I was a good pitcher, but I wasn’t Tom Seaver. And Hank Aaron — it’s like getting to the top of the mountain.”
Beyond that, Palmer said, Aaron personified class. Jackson said Aaron carried himself with a kind of regal dignity that few others have had: Joe DiMaggio and Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving.
“There’s something about them,” Jackson said. “There’s some kind of angel or some kind of sainthood that’s around them. If they were in England, they’d all be knighted.”
When Jackson joined the Yankees in 1977, he chose No. 44 in Aaron’s honor. Aaron had just retired, and in some ways Jackson took the mantle as a socially conscious superstar, free to speak his mind on race and other issues, he said, largely because of the example Aaron had set.
Aaron’s courage in breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, while privately dealing with the worst of humanity in death threats and a deluge of racist, hateful mail, resonates far beyond the field.
“I can’t comprehend how he did what he did under those circumstances,” Dale Murphy, a fellow member of the Braves’ Hall of Fame, said on Friday, recalling how Aaron had to navigate segregation early in his career, as well as the hostility that later surrounded his home run chase. “When you put it all together, when you look at his statistics and then add the degree of difficulty — having your teammates bring you food, staying with people on the outskirts of town as you’re trying to learn your craft, chasing Babe Ruth and suffering, in his words, the worst year of his career from the death threats and pressures and concerns for his family’s safety, spending the night at the ballpark instead of going back to the hotel — to me, that adds up to the greatest player ever.”