To look forward

We interrupt these regularly scheduled repeat postings to bring you a tribute I published here back in 2017. Rest in peace, Mr. Aaron. Unlike so many tarnished sports heroes, your legacy will always shine. We will always remember you.

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.” 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.  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.

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