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Days After Surgery, Hank Aaron Posed for Sports Illustrated

“He was always a man of his word,” Jeffery A. Salter says.

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One constant that seems to link many Sports Illustrated photo shoots is that they don’t always go as planned. Sometimes Michael Phelps has to go to the bathroom while in an aquarium tank or Serena Williams shows up hours late due to an injury.

In April 2014, Jeffery A. Salter planned to shoot environmental portraits of Hank Aaron for Sports Illustrated at Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ former stadium.

After getting everything set up at the stadium, Salter learned that Aaron wouldn’t be able to make it there. Instead, Salter and his crew were invited to Aaron’s home. Salter had Aaron sit on a chair, stationed in front of a living room filled with “wonderful momentos,” Salter says.

Salter likes to keep most of his portraits focused, he says in the latest episode of Sports Illustrated’s Full Frame video series. To watch more episodes, check out our Youtube playlist.

“Portrait photography is about the eyes—it’s about looking at the person’s eyes and having them give you something back,” he says. “When you’re tasked with photographing someone who’s iconic, you want people to look into them and feel the energy they’re projecting.”

hank-aaron-portrait

Salter wanted to keep things simple, highlighting Aaron’s “strong and powerful” hands while paying particular attention to lighting, as he does in many of his portraits.

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“I use lights as a metaphor in my imagery,” Salter says. “I don’t just put up light to illuminate. I like to reveal the subject in different layers.”

But it wasn’t until Aaron, who had turned 80 just a couple of months before the shoot, closed his eyes and leaned in to the baseball bat he was holding that Salter realized what he captured.

“I noticed that he was getting a little bit antsy, a little bit tired,” Salter says. “But then, during the last few shots, he just leaned his head toward the bat and he put his lips on the bat and that’s when I fired. It’s one of my favorite shots of Hank Aaron.”

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After the shoot, as Salter was packing up, someone informed him that Aaron had gotten out of surgery just days before the portrait shoot.

“But he wanted to do the shoot, and even if he was uncomfortable and in a bit of pain, he was a gentleman,” Salter says. “It’s kind of hard to put into words what my heart felt when I found out that he was willing to power through this portrait to give me the chance and for him to grace my lens, and to share his grace with me.”

This didn’t surprise Salter in part because his own father, who grew up in Alabama at the same time as Aaron, always shared stories of Aaron’s dignity.

“My father always told me these stories about Hank when he was growing up,” Salter says. “My father really was a Hank Aaron fan. And I got to know Mr. Aaron and know why he has the reputation of being a gentleman and a man of grace.”

hank-aaron-portrait

Aaron died Jan. 22, 2021 at the age of 86. Here are some of Sports Illustrated’s memorable stories featuring Aaron from over the decades:

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI's photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed last week’s edition on shooting Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah, you can find it here.

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