Hammerin’ Hank

January 22nd, 2021

I’ll always remember that evening in April, 1974.

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My 26 Hank Aaron baseball cards, saved from when I was his biggest fan.

The text came in from my cousin, “RIP Hank Aaron.”

“Damn,” was all I could respond.

I was out on a snowy winter stroll through my favorite forest trail and I immediately shot back to Springtime, 1974, when Hammerin’ Hank blasted past Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record.

Watching it on our tiny TV back then, I remember so much about the event. I’m sure it’ll be replayed over and over again on our large flatscreen throughout the news cycle. But I kind of want to just remember it as it was, back when I watched it with Dad, as Dodger pitcher Al Downing served up the historic pitch in the fourth inning.

According to USA Today, famed Dodgers announcer Vin Scully narrated it like this:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron …”

As a boy, I remember wondering if an African-American man would be nervous about breaking a white man’s record. My father tried to reassure me that no, we were past all that racism and discrimination stuff. I was happy to hear that at the time, even though part of me knew it wasn’t true. I loved Hank Aaron and I hated to think that anyone could possibly feel otherwise about him. I cut out pictures of the future Hall of Famer to tape to my bedroom wall and even made my fifth-grade science project about him, if you can believe it.

Henry Louis Aaron was my idol, surpassing even my beloved Detroit Tiger’s catcher Bill Freehan. I just now went to the basement and found my old baseball cards. Yep, I still have the 26 Topps cards I collected as a kid. (My older brothers may try to lay claim to the earliest ones, but I salvaged them and other All Stars from the trash when they — my brothers — moved on to being obsessed with girls and other three dimensional things instead of flat pieces of cardboard.)

As an adult, I came to learn that Aaron’s quest for the record was fraught with pitfalls, including horrific threats from the Klan and other ignorant scum buckets out there. But this month, an African-American preacher and a young Jewish man were both elected to the United States Senate from Georgia. And they were sworn in by the nation’s first African-American & Indian woman Vice President. 

No Dad, we’re not past all that racism and discrimination stuff. But I think we may just be rounding the bases. 

And like Hank, hope is on the way home.

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