There was a time in baseball before high tech training and the advent of steroids when records were broken not on the fly, but through hard work, dedication, and longevity in the sport. I am specifically reminded of “Hammerin’ Hank,” Henry Aaron. I was not even born when Hank started playing professional ball for the then Milwaukie Braves, and was almost 12 when he reached his milestone 715th homer to break Ruth’s record. It was never a question that Hank would go into the Hall of Fame as he finished his career with a .305 average, 755 home runs, 3771 hits, and 2297 rbi’s. Those are incredible statistics. But it’s not the numbers I remember most about Hank, it is that he played the Game well, and that he played it right.
I grew up in Orangeburg, SC., a smallish town in the heart of South Carolina (a state criminally without a major league ball club). The lack of a hometown team left my older brother Chris and I to play the field as it were in choosing our favorite club. I had several years that I was an A’s fan because I was on a little league team called the A’s. My brother and I liked the Phillies as well, they were a dynamic team when we were growing up led by an aggressive player by the name of Larry Boa. We loved to listen to Phillies games at night on our little radio. But without a doubt, when growing up our favorite team was the Atlanta Braves. Lying in bed we would have the company of the glow of our little green dial radio between our two beds and the voices of Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson as the Braves played season after season.
I suppose there were better teams we could have followed, in the late sixties and through the seventies, the Braves lead by politically incorrect mascot Chief Knock-a-Homa (later joined by even more incorrect Princess Poke-a-Homa) never failed to disappoint. Seasons were long arduous affairs despite having Hank Aaron and the supporting cast of Ralf the roadrunner Garr, Gary Matthews, Darrel Evens, and Phil Nekro. Most of the pitchers for the braves were not known for being able to hit the broad side of a barn, and so seasons would come and go most often with more losses than wins. Still Chris and I loved listening to them and Milo and Ernie became like family, I still miss their voices.
During this love affair with the Braves, it would have been impossible not to have Hammerin’ Hank as my favorite. Hell, by the time I started really paying attention to baseball, Hank already had over 400 home runs. There was nothing flashy about Hank, he played the game and played it well and never drew attention to himself with proclamations or antics – just hard work, skill, and desire. Back then, that was all that it took. After all as Yogi has said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half physical.”
It was a pleasure to listen to and to watch Hank play the game as few have. He was always a lesson being taught. As he got closer to the record, he was the pulse of baseball, he gave the Game an elevated life, and at no time did he take advantage of that celebrity. He will always be someone who’s swing and smile stood out more than any show of ego.
But when I reflect on Hank, I get deeper impressions, more important insights. We are in the age of the first “black” president, we just saw the first “woman” win the Oscar for best director, and over recent years this era has seen the first Hispanic this, and the first Oriental that, and one minority achievement after another. But look back to Hank, he started playing baseball before civil rights. He began the Game when it was still difficult to be black and play baseball. Hank’s career spanned the era of civil rights, hate, and desegregation. Yes, during his time he did have to endure a lot of hatred, and march through a great deal of adversity, but he never made it the focus of his life or used it as a crutch or banner. With the swing of a bat, he made most people forget (at least for a moment) the color of his skin, and instead think of the amazing achievement of a man. Hank demonstrated by example that petty concerns like a man’s race pales in comparison to a single act in a simple game, that prejudice really has no relevance. Thank you Hank not only for being my baseball hero, but being a larger hero in showing me that if there are more important things in life than baseball, then there are infinitely more important things in life than maintaining prejudices.