Editorial: Hank Aaron lived his life with dignity

Published 9:34 am Thursday, January 28, 2021

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I was there for No. 709.

I had been to a few games prior to this one, so I may have seen Hammerin’ Hank Aaron hit other home runs, but this one was special.

The Atlanta Braves were a doormat. They rarely won.

But they had Hank Aaron. A real hero. Perhaps the greatest hitter ever to play the game (That is debatable, but Aaron has to be considered in any such conversation.)

As he neared Babe Ruth’s homerun record, the stands at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium went from a few thousand a game to packed – almost every game.

Hank started off 1973 pretty hot. For sure, he would break Ruth’s record sometime later that season.

The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. I became an immediate fan because I had been through Atlanta on the way to relative’s homes in Alabama. I had been by the park where Atlanta’s minor league team played before the Braves during game time, and was wide-eyed at all of the commotion. I wanted to go to a game.

And as an active 9-year-old boy, I often dreamed of some day playing in the Major Leagues. I would throw an old tennis ball at a square painted onto the side of the smoke house for hours on end, dreaming I would strike out the final batter to win the World Series. I would hit rocks with an old wooden bat for hours on end, dreaming I was hitting the game-winning homerun in the World Series.

At night, I would listen to the Braves on a small transister radio inside our home.

My hero, of course, was Hank Aaron.

And when he started getting closer and closer to Ruth’s record, I talked my parents into getting tickets to try to see the Hammer break the record. We got tickets for a September game in 1973, and although now a teen, I was super excited. I dreamed all of summer of watching him break the Babe’s record.

But Hank went on a slump. He did hit No. 709 while we were there – a day I’ll never forget.

But it was the next April before he broke the record.

Hank Aaron was a poor black kid growing up in Mobile, Ala. Jackie Robinson had inspired him, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

It was a major step not only for his race – but for all of baseball – as he inched closer and closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s record. What happened during that time proved that Aaron was the better man.

He received letter after letter of hate mail. He received death threats regularly. All were for one reason – he was black. Sure, he got some positive fan mail, but the volume of hate speech thrown his way was incomprehensible. People hated him just because he was black.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Babe Ruth was a beer-swilling, cigar smoking, hotdog swallowing womanizer who could hit a baseball. I have to admit, I admire him too. Now that’s the life.

Hank Aaron was a God-fearing, faithful, thrifty man who could also hit a baseball. Now that’s a better life.

Those reams of hate mail may have put him into a slump that year, but he handled it with dignity. Hank Aaron didn’t brag. Hank Aaron didn’t taunt. Hank Aaron simply played baseball.

“I need to depend on someone who is bigger, stronger and wiser than I am,” he wrote for Guideposts in 1973. “I don’t do it on my own. God is my strength. He gave me a good body and some talent and the freedom to develop it. He helps me when things go wrong. He forgives me when I fall on my face. He lights the way.”

Not only are those wise words, they were words Aaron lived by.

Hank Aaron wanted the homerun title, for sure, but he also knew that records are made to be broken. He said so at the time.

He even called Barry Bonds, the steroid-taking slugger who broke his record of 755 career homeruns, to congratulate him. Now that’s class.

Hank Aaron died last week. He leaves a legacy that modern professional athletes could follow. Just do your job to your best God-given ability.

– Mike Barnhardt