Nearly 47 years ago I was in a room at Danville Regional hospital after having my tonsils taken out. I was only seven years old…but I needed to recover QUICKLY!! Why? It was April 8, 1974—and I was worried I would miss Hank Aaron going for the all-time home run record.
Hank hit home run #714 on Saturday in Cincinnati off of Jack Billingham. That tied Babe Ruth. They sat him on Sunday, wanting him to have a chance to break the record when the Braves returned home to Fulton County Stadium. Their Monday night game against the Dodgers was going to be broadcast nationally—a rarity back then.
I had my tonsils taken out that morning and nurses shoved ice cream down my throat while I drifted in and out of consciousness. I REALLY wanted to be awake for the game that evening.
My dad was a welder. He was working on building an addition to The hospital. He was working on the roof that abutted the existing floor where I was being treated. He would crawl in through the window and eat lunch with me.
After finishing up work dad crawled in through the window with McDonald’s and hung around until the game started. I was still groggy but determined to watch. Thankfully, Hammerin’ Hank went deep his first time up, allowing me to go to sleep without worrying about missing anything. I slept until Noon the next day.
The next year, as I began my storied Little League baseball career, I did so with a Hank Aaron model Wilson A-2000 glove. Being eight years old, I was convinced that Hank himself had autographed the glove!
Suffice to say, I had no greater sports hero growing up than Hank Aaron. And being young it never occurred to me that my forebears would have considered it taboo for a little white boy from Southside Virginia to idolize a black man. Well, I didn’t see a black male. I saw an elegant athlete with the quickest wrists at the plate I have ever seen (to this day) who could wait forever on even the best pitch and hit it hard. I saw a man who always appeared to be smiling…who was gracious and humble.
I never thought at the time how significant it was to have a father who was raised in SUCH a different time who not only said nothing about my hero-worship, but actively encouraged it. That’s what made it so hard to learn later, while still a kid, that Aaron’s magical chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record had brought out some of the worst letters the US Postal Service have ever delivered. It was staggering the amount of abuse this man was subject to, based solely on the color of his skin. It most certainly was NOT about the content of his character, which was impeccable.
Just by being Hank Aaron, he was able to show an entire generation of little white boys that it was just fine worshiping the athletic skills of a black athlete. Today, we think nothing about such things. Yes there are still major race issues our society must address. But we are MUCH further along than we would have otherwise been because of super human beings like Hank Aaron.
There is an old picture of me I would give almost ANYTHING to recover. Mom took a shot of one of my games at Glenwood Elementary School, where I batted a robust .737 my senior year. Unconsciously, I modeled my swing after Hank’s. Mom took a picture of me during a sweet follow-through on a double. It looked almost EXACTLY like the famous shot of Aaron’s follow-through on his 715th homer. Both arms still over the plate—but the wrists (which generated super-human powers) were already fully bent, having sent another baseball on a light flight. It was my dream to get Hank to autograph that picture of me. Alas, it has been lost to the ages. And now we’ve lost Hank to the ages.
RIP, my hero. I’ll see you one day.