I had recently turned eight back in 1974 when Hank Aaron hammered a pitch from Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers into the bullpen at Atlanta Stadium to become Major League Baseball’s home run king.
I remember gathering around our old, black and white television with my dad and brothers hoping to witness history. I remember the pitch and the swing. I remember Atlanta pitcher Tom House catching the ball in the bullpen and the two guys catching up to Aaron at second base as he circled the bases. I remember the mob of teammates who jumped him when Aaron touched home plate after his historic 715th home run.
I remember his mama wrapping him in huge bear hug.
I remember turning to my dad and telling him I wanted to be just like Hank Aaron, and I remember my dad giving me a sad look and saying “No, son. You don’t.”
I was just starting my first year of organized baseball in the Erwin, Tennessee Little League and had yet to hit my first career home run, but I remember being a little stunned to hear my dad had doubts about my impending quest to be like the game’s greatest home run hitter.
I’m ashamed to admit it took 33 years for me to realize what my dad was really trying to say that night.
Aaron, who died in his sleep at the age of 86 on Jan. 22, retired in 1976 and finished with 755 career home runs. He still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,471) and total bases (6,856) than any player in history, and ranks second in at-bats, third in games played and hits and fourth in runs scored.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot – even though nine clueless knuckleheads didn’t vote for him – and he became an ambassador for the Atlanta Braves and Major League Baseball.
In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
As a Braves fan, I knew all of his numbers by heart. What I didn’t know was what Aaron endured while compiling those numbers, especially when he — a Black man in the south — had the nerve to chase the home run record of the beloved Babe Ruth.
I’m not talking about people just hoping he didn’t succeed or maybe wishing he would suffer some sort of on-field injury that slowed him down and eventually kept him from earning the record.
Aaron received death threats, most in the form of letters – boxes of them – during his quest for the home run title. They threatened him, his wife and his children, using the most vile, racist language imaginable.
The memory I have of his mama wrapping him in a huge bear hug at home plate after he broke Ruth’s record? That wasn’t a joyous occasion. It was a mama declaring if anyone wanted to hurt her baby, they were going to have to go through her first.
I learned all of this in 2007 when Barry Bonds began closing in on Aaron’s home run record. I remember hoping Bonds would fail, but only because I loved Hank Aaron and was (and still am) convinced Bonds cheated his way into the record books by using steroids.
Aaron, even in the face of hideous racism, was the definition of class and dignity throughout his career and later in life when he helped young players – black and white – navigate the way through their careers.
When I was eight and told my dad I wanted to be just like Hank Aaron, I was talking about baseball. My dad, the smartest man I’ve ever know despite having only a seventh-grade education, was thinking about the struggles Aaron went through simply because some folks thought he had the wrong skin color.
A hip injury ended my baseball “career” early, and I figure with all the home runs I hit in Little League and other summer baseball games, I came up about 700 home runs shy of Aaron’s record-breaking total.
There’s no shame in that since not many people have accomplished the things Aaron did on the baseball diamond.
The shame would be not recognizing and following the example he set off the field.