To look forward

Hank Aaron in 2015. Photo by Lauren Gerson, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“I didn’t have particular baseball heroes in those days…I didn’t relate to baseball players, even though I played the game myself, because I knew I had nothing to look forward to. There was no hope for me to play in the big leagues back then because I was black.”ย Hank Aaron

Wow. Talk about defeating despair! The young Henry Aaron must have loved the game enough to go on playing despite being, as far as anyone knew at the time, shut out of the chance for a professional career. If he was a different sort of person, he might be sitting around today telling his grandchildren how he could have been a star if not for the racism he lived with every day of his youth. He could be complaining of how he had to start his professional career playing on a team called the Clowns, or about all the times he had to play in segregated stadiums, or had to eat his meals while sitting in the team bus because he wasn’t allowed to go into a restaurant with his white teammates.

For that matter, he could have been consumed with fear and resentment at the death threats he received decades later as he neared Babe Ruth’s longstanding home run record. But from his youth onward, Aaron just went on doing what he did best, and he was impossible to stop. For many of us, he is still, and will always be, the greatest home run hitter who ever lived. ย If you’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and seen the Barry Bonds home run ball with the large asterisk carved into the leather, you know how many fans (who voted for such an alteration in the ball before it was donated to the museum) agree with me on that.

Hank Aaron is larger than life to me because I grew up in Atlanta, and remember hearing Milo Hamilton’s exited voice on the radio, shouting with glee whenever Hammerin’ Hank knocked the ball out of the park. I remember when a high school classmate of mine, secretly listening to his transistor during Algebra, blew his own cover by shouting aloud that Hank Aaron had just tied the home run record with #714. Instead of reprimanding him, the teacher allowed him to go tell the front office, and the normally straight-laced principal went on the school PA system to announce it to the entire school, after which much cheering erupted throughout the building.

It’s hard now for us to imagine a little league player who has no big-league heroes, but Hank Aaron apparently didn’t need any. He became the hero himself. It would be impossible to count how many of us are grateful he had what it took to go the distance, blessing the world with his extraordinary talent.

21 Comments

  1. Julia, this is inspiring! Thanks for sharing about Hank Aaron. What years did you live in Atlanta? My dad worked for Standard Oil in the late 50’s and the 60’s in Atlanta. We lived in Decatur! I was born in Atlanta and lived in Decatur until I was 10. Wow! No wonder we are kindred spirits.

    • Patsy, I grew up in Atlanta (East Point). I was born in Texas, right on the border, and lived briefly in Hialeah (near Miami) but was far too young to remember living in either place – we moved to the Atlanta area when I was a toddler and I’ve always thought of it as home. I lived there from about 1958 or 1959, until I went away to college in 1974 (and still spent summers, holidays and many weekends there, since I could fly back and forth for free). So you and I were there during some of the same years. Our older son Drew lived in Decatur for nearly 10 years, while he was in school at Emory and until he and his wife bought their current home. Yes, I think we must have some of the same childhood memories…did you ever go to Rich’s Downtown and ride the Pink Pig? I worked at Rich’s for 5 years, from age 16-21. Through many jobs in different fields, it will always be one of my favorite jobs ever.

      • Wow, Julia. It’s a small world indeed! I think my brothers and I were all born at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. We lived there until June of 1970 so we were almost neighbors! LOL! I don’t remember the Pink Pig, but I do remember going to Rich’s! I haven’t thought about that store in years. I am glad you had a great work experience there. What did you like most about the job?

        • Oh, my, I wouldn’t know where to start. I loved the employee discounts, and being in the stores at all the different seasons and seeing new merchandise come in. I loved learning about all the things we sold in the departments I worked in. I loved that my boss gave me total flexibility and I could pretty much work any hours I wanted. But most of all I loved the people. Over the five years I was there I worked with some of the most fun people I’ve ever known, and we had great times together. Nowadays one would never find three to five people working the same department at the same time, but back in those days Rich’s had a solid customer service mentality and it was really a fun place to be. I can remember so much of it almost as if it was yesterday. After I married and moved away I came back there to visit for years, since many of the people I worked with remained there for a good while after I left. But eventually they all moved on as I did. Who knows…you and I may have walked past each other on the streets or in a store aisle sometime! Life is strange that way. BTW the Pink Pig was a ride that was only available at Christmas time at the downtown store. NPR did a story on it awhile back. It used to be so much fun when the track ran outside the downtown store, which was two tall buildings, the “store for homes” and the “store for fashion,” connected by a multi-level indoor bridge that had restaurants on many of the floors. It was fun to ride the pink pig at night and look out at the Atlanta lights.

          • Julia, it sounds like you had a really fun job! And you’re right, who knows? We may very well have walked past each other at some point! I don’t remember if my mom shopped there much. Probably not. I mostly remember going to Sears and J. C. Penney’s which was more affordable, right? Wasn’t Rich’s kind of like Macy’s is now, a little on the expensive side? Anyway, I definitely don’t remember the Pink Pig. I looked at the NPR story and the picture didn’t ring a bell at all so I probably never went on it. I bet it was fun to ride it at night though!

            • Patsy, Rich’s was a bit above Penney’s and Sears– in fact, Macy’s bought them year ago and they are very similar, though lacking the Southern customer service vibe in which Rich’s took such pride. Having said that, everything nowadays is upscale compared to what it used to be. Despite what people may say, everyone at every level in the USA now expects a much higher standard of living; for the middle class, that means garages instead of carports, and more than one bathroom even for small families. But I digress. Rich’s in those days was more like Penney’s is now. The store I worked in had three floors, common for Rich’s “branch” stores (the downtown store had two buildings which had six or seven floors each!) and the lower level of most branch stores had what they called “budget” clothes for men and women, teens and kids. But their stuff was really cute. It’s amazing to realize that same lower level, which is where I worked, also had books, records, stereo gear and TVs a pharmacy, an old-fashioned candy and nut counter, a bakery, a huge fabric and sewing department, and a sporting goods department– which is where I worked– where we sold everything from cameras to luggage to tennis gear to athletic shoes (in those days the athletic shoes were mostly Converse tennis shoes until Adidas revolutionized the marketing of that type shoe) to guns and rifles and ammo. YEP! Handguns and rifles. My, how time have changed. Interestingly, there was LESS crime in those days, not more. The top floor had super nice furniture, and the main floor had all the best designer fashions and nice jewelry, among other things. They sold fur coats, too, in the fur salon downtown. But what blows my mind is that I didn’t think of Rich’s as an especially nice store. I guess I was comparing it to Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, which were out at Phipps Plaza in Buckhead, where I used to love to shop. I hardly ever bought much there, although I did get a coat at Lord & Taylor and one at Saks, and occasionally a dress — but mostly I would shop around and soak up the styles, then pick out Vogue and Butterick patterns and fabric which my mother would whip up into similar clothes to my exact specifications. She was an amazing seamstress, and could add, subtract or adapt any detail I wanted to design. One day I came home from school to find she had made THREE dresses from the fabric we had bought the day before! It was like having my own couturier and getting custom clothes for almost nothing (I bought the patterns and fabrics with my employee discount, which was as much as 30% when the spring and fall fashions arrived). I was quite the clothes horse in those days. I learned to sew for myself eventually but could never do one tenth of what she could, and even then, once I left home I could not afford to spend all my money on ersatz haute couture. Then clothes started coming from sweatshops overseas and the prices were so low that sewing did not even save money anymore. WOW, did I get going down memory lane or what!! It’s fun to reminisce sometimes. BTW I think you would definitely remember the Pink Pig if you ever rode it. It was quite unique, even without the 8 live reindeer on display as one moved down the queue.

  2. Janet Sawyer

    Really good!

    • Thank you, Janet. It’s always nice to hear from you!

  3. Harry Sims

    Ah! Yes!
    Harry

    • Thanks Harry. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Ann

    Thanks for sharing the background of Hammering Hank and for sharing the memories!

    • You’re welcome, Ann. It’s funny the things we remember 45 or 50 years later. The Braves never won many games when I was a kid, but we had Hank Aaron and that was even better. In fact I never could figure out how they could have so many really good players and not ever make the playoffs. But all that changed in 1991, and I was there for at least a little bit of that magic.

  5. Julia,
    Great players begin with great people. Where there is a will, there is a way. For those who don’t allow resentment to cripple them.
    -Alan

    • Alan, I need to remember that myself sometimes. I’ll never be great at anything, but resentment holds many of us back from achieving our best. I think that’s why stories such as Aaron’s are so inspiring. They show us what is possible for those who refuse to be a victim of circumstances. They give us hope that some very sad stories do indeed have happy endings.

  6. Sheila

    Julia, I almost thought of telling you that it’s been a “whirlwind” week but then thought about us going on a silly back and forth. I decided maybe it was too late for such. We have been busy planning and preparing for Hurricane Irma although we’re so fortunate to be spared her fury and destruction, so far. I’m so sorry for the concern, but you’re just caring like that. Thank you for keeping me so close in your thoughts and prayers.๐Ÿ™ I learned so much about Hank Aaron that I was unaware of. There are so many trials and heartaches that we’re never aware of, the personal price that so many pay. I have so much to share with you and Matt about Alaska! It was so wonderful. 428 is rather blustery tonight,๐Ÿ’จ๐ŸŒฌ๐ŸŒŠ, still a blessing in comparison. I love y’all dearly! ๐Ÿ’› Sheila

    • Sheila, I am so happy that you are all OK at 428! I was just now combing your FB page for an update when your comment popped in letting me know you are OK. I guess you will have to endure a lot of rebuilding of the dunes and other damage in GC but thank goodness 428 is still standing and you are all doing well. I can’t wait to hear about Alaska and the September Verandah is just right for a chat. YES, we all have stories that people don’t know about. It always encourages me to read of famous or everyday people who managed to keep going and thrive despite obstacles. Sending love and gratitude your way! โค

  7. Wow hey? Thanks for sharing Mr Aarons story. Since Edmonton hasn’t ever had a pro-ball team, it’s never been much on my radar. I know the names of course, but not about the men who played the game.
    Segregation is a mind blowing thing. As far as I can recall, we didn’t have the laws or attitudes in Alberta relating to blacks. But there are, and probably always has been, racial divides in many other ways, including the treatment of our Indigenious communities. In the past, their young children had been sent away to white schools, with thoughts of assimulating them. Sadly, their culture & language, stripped away. It’s horrendous to think what they’ve been through. Some illy-educated people still hang on to their stereotype idea’s about the indigenous and they don’t get the same opportunities, educational and otherwise.
    Coincidentally, Jim and I just watched ‘Hidden Figures’ on the weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I think you might enjoy it. It’s about segregation and the African American women that made important contributions to the NASA programs in the early 60’s. It’s pretty shocking, to me anyways, that someone had to drink from a different coffee pot because of their skin color. I can’t even wrap my head around that. We still have a ways to go ! xo K

    • K, I think racism, as with any other form of discrimination, is everywhere and present to some extent in all of us (I don’t subscribe to the theory that only oppressors can be racists, though I know some people do define the word that way). I think every location has a different history in terms of which group or groups were most mistreated, but I don’t know of any place on earth that has been free of it — though some offenses have been much worse and more obvious than others. I would guess that indigenous people have borne the brunt of mistreatment in Canada and in parts of the western USA, as well as in many other countries. I read an article not long ago about a group of indigenous adults in Canada who re-visited the school where they had been sent away from their families to, in effect, learn how to make it in a white man’s world. While many of them were quite generous and forgiving in acknowledging that at least some of the perpetrators had good intentions, it was sad and painful to read of what it was like for them to endure forced separation from their homes and culture. Such mistakes take a long, long time to be made right, not least because some of the most lingering effects are often not obvious. I haven’t yet seen “Hidden Figures” but I do want to see it. I wonder whether any of it took place at the NASA location adjacent to our York County home? Where I went to college (in Nashville), you could still see on the restroom doors in the basement where the word “colored” had been sanded off above the words “Men” and “Women” on the restroom doors. I remember my sister taking me to see it when I first visited her while she was in school there and I was in high school. Obviously the doors could have been re-finished but I think they intentionally left it there as a visible reminder of something that seems hard to imagine for us now. I bet it’s not still visible, though. Probably the bathrooms were gutted and totally re-done years ago. Two of our elders and many of our older members at church are of an age that they can remember, like Hank Aaron, having had to endure segregation, though I have never heard any of them mention it. One of these days I’m going to ask some of them to tell me some stories of what it was like and how that affects them now. I don’t want any of the stories of our older generations, of any background, to be lost. It’s too easy to be clueless about what has brought us to the world we now live in, for good and ill.

      • That must have been very humbling to stand in front of that door and know that those attitudes were not too far in the past. That’s what I was thinking when I saw the movie. I also think about it when I see homelessness downtown. Many are minorities from very young to very old. It’s very obvious to me there’s such a long road ahead. I totally agree, learning about the past is a good way to affect change for the better. xo K

  8. Good morning, Julia! I was just delighted to hear how your principal announced Aaron’s 714th HOME RUN!
    Home Run! What an impossibly high number of home runs that is. I had to share this post on Facebook.
    YAY!

    • Thank you, Susan. Yes, that spontaneous announcement is one of my very favorite memories from high school. ๐Ÿ™‚

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