Henry Louis “Hank’’ Aaron turned 80 on Feb. 5, a long life now divided neatly in half by the 40 years building to home run No. 715 and the 40 years spent in service to that epic swing.
Aaron was honored on Feb. 7 at a dinner thrown by his buddy, Commissioner Bud Selig. On Feb. 8, he and his likeness were celebrated at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Space in that hall is reserved not only for those who can hit the fastball, but those who have, on a grander scale, influenced a nation’s culture. The Hammer did his share of societal shaping with a 33-ounce piece of sculpted ash.
“Can we tell the story of baseball without Henry Aaron? I don’t think so,” Bethany Bentley, a gallery spokeswoman, said. He’ll keep eclectic company, hanging next to actor Morgan Freeman.
The artist who did this and another portrait of Aaron to go in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Atlanta’s Ross Rossin, felt it his responsibility to capture “the positive energy that comes from him, the magnetism, the charisma.
“He is more than a sports star; he is an unbelievable human being who represents the time he lived in,” Rossin said. Aaron will be Rossin’s fourth subject displayed at the Smithsonian, along with Freeman, former U.N. ambassador/Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and poet Maya Angelou.
Even someone who has been honored in nearly every conceivable fashion still can be moved by an event of this scale.
“I was there with Andrew Young when they hung his (portrait),” Aaron said this month. “You’re on a different level when you get there. You’ve achieved a lot and somebody upstairs loves you. I don’t know — you feel like somebody special.” Before leaving for D.C., Aaron sat for an interview in the southwest Atlanta home he has been in since 1974. What emerged was another portrait of an octogenarian sporting icon at ease with the sum of his life.