Monday, January 25, 2021

The Death of a Hero

Over the weekend I learned that Hank Aaron, one of my great childhood heroes, died. He was my favorite baseball player on my favorite team. He was known for hitting home runs, but it's hard to argue that there has ever been a better all-around player than Hammerin' Hank, although as a boy these nuances didn't play into my calculations. I only knew that he was a man who was doing remarkable things and I wanted to be like him.

I only saw him play one time in person. My family traveled to Atlanta for a game between the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals sometime during the late 1970's. We were seated in the upper deck above the third base line. I'd brought my glove with me, hoping, expecting, to catch a foul ball, preferably off the bat of Hank Aaron, one of the few true celebrities in my life. I rarely even saw him play on television. They didn't broadcast all the games back then the way they do today. I learned most of what I knew of him by reading about his exploits in the sports pages of the newspaper, our family's subscription to Sports Illustrated, and studying the statistics on the back of his baseball card. 

He is the holder of many records, but the one for which he will always be remembered is breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record of 714. I was watching on TV, everyone was watching on TV, when he finally slugged 715 on April 8, 1974. I cheered and danced around our den joining the millions of Americans who witnessed the moment together. It was pure joy for us, but it wasn't for him. As a Black man in America, a man on the verge of breaking a white man's hallowed record, the run up to that moment was fraught. He was abused by racist fans, receiving sacks full of hate mail and thousands of death threats. This wasn't something the media covered at the time. At least I didn't hear of it, but I remember wondering what Aaron meant when he said, while celebrating the record, that he was glad it was over. He retired two years later, still hitting home runs.

Hank Aaron continues to be a hero of mine and not just because of the childhood memories. He was a civil rights activist, he was a groundbreaking baseball executive, and he seemed to do it all while maintaining a squeaky clean image. He had to be that much better than everyone else on the field and off. I didn't know as a boy just how remarkable his success was: to succeed like he did as a Black man in America, he had to be extraordinary in every way. I honestly don't know how he would have fared in today's media environment, but from everything I know about him, he earned every bit of his acclaim, both professionally and personally. And even so, he knew, we all know, there were still those who rooted for his failure, even death, because of the color of his skin and the fact that he had the audacity to break the record of a white man.

Mom always cautioned us about heroes and didn't like us to even use the word, except when referring to comic book characters, but Hank Aaron's inspiration is one of the primary reasons I played baseball right up to early adulthood and continued, perhaps even in pale imitation of him, upon my "retirement" to coach teams right up through my mid-30's. It was this experience, coaching, that allowed me my first taste of working with young children, an experience that to this day informs my practice. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Aaron as a player was his consistency. He wasn't necessarily a flashy player. He didn't hit the longest home runs. He didn't awe us with acrobatic defensive plays. Yet year in and year out for 23 years, he went out there and expressed a workmanlike joy, being a man his teammates and coaches and fans could count on. When I was a boy, I wanted to be like him because of what he did, his athletic exploits, but today, I seek to be like him because of how he did it.

There are those who insist that we ought not look so far afield for our heroes, that they can and should be found closer to home, that those who provide and care for us are more deserving of that appellation. I see the point, but there's also a role for those we place on pedestals and gaze upon from a distance. Many of the heroes of my youth have let me down, but not Hammerin' Hank, not Hank the Bank. When his own home run record was broken, controversially, by Barry Bonds in 2006, he was among the first to congratulate Bonds, even as others, to this day, consider it a fraud, saying:

"I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."

I am not the only one Hank Aaron inspired. And he was not the only one who inspired me, but the hole I feel in my life right now, tells me how important his example has been. Even as a boy I knew I would probably never do what he did, but a part of how he did it, still lives in everything I do. 


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