Hank Aaron, 1934-2021
By Sheila C. Johnson
Over coffee the other morning I was reviewing the names of some of the newsmakers, earth shakers, and otherwise social, political and/or cultural leaders we lost in 2021. And what struck me as I was reading was how many of them were men and women of color.
To that end, please enjoy this, the first of a four-part series of my personal thoughts on those I consider the most impactful Black men and women taken from us over the course of the past twelve months.
Few African Americans we’ve ever lost loomed any larger and, for a time, drew any greater share of our collective attention than a shy, humble kid born and raised in Mobile, Alabama during the Great Depression, a young man who came into the world in February of 1934 as Henry Louis Aaron.
Because one night in the Spring of 1974, a 40-year-old, aging, gently expanding, and visibly slowing Aaron did what most considered unthinkable, if not impossible. He broke the most iconic and beloved record the sporting world has ever known: Babe Ruth’s lifetime total of 714 home runs.
What’s more, he did it as a Black man…and did it in a city that was once the very symbol of the Old South; this after having been subjected to over a year’s worth of venomous hate mail from racists, fear mongers, and white supremacists all across the country, those who called him “uppity,” those who referred to him by the “n” word, and those who threatened to shoot him if he had to temerity to break the great Babe’s vaunted record. So many, in fact, that the FBI deemed several of the threats so real that they launched an investigation into them.
Now, understand, I was not a baseball fan back in those days. As a cheerleader in both high school and college, basketball and football were my two games. But on the night of April 8, 1974, I promise you there wasn’t a Black man, woman, or child anywhere in America who didn’t immediately become a baseball fan, and who wasn’t leaning forward, saying a silent prayer, and glued to his or her TV set as Hank came to bat for the Atlanta Braves in the very first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And when Hank connected on his very first swing of the game, and the ball sailed over the left field fence and deep into the night — if not American history — I jumped off the couch and began screaming like a schoolgirl at a Marvin Gaye concert. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. Goosebumps formed on my arms and legs. And tears of joy began to fill my eyes. I couldn’t believe it, even as “Hammering Hank” rounded second base with his head down, an almost visible weight seeming to lift off his shoulders as he continued his trot toward home plate and, as it turned out, baseball immortality.
Now, I’m sure I’d been as proud to be a Black woman before that moment, but for the life of me I could not remember when. So, what did I do when Henry Louis Aaron – a humble and quiet Black man from the deepest part of America’s Deep South – broke the hallowed and unassailable record of an all-time great – a bawdy, boozy and bigger-than-life white icon named Babe Ruth?
I did what any self-respecting child of Africa would do. I called my mother.
“Mama, Mama, did you see? Did you see???” I screamed into the phone, repeating the second part just to make sure she heard me the first time.
When Hank Aaron died a year ago January, just two weeks shy of his 87th birthday, Black America lost more than just another one of our superstars We lost one of the greatest role models – if not touchstones – we’ve ever known. Because in the world of pro sports, a world now seemingly awash with runaway egos, flamboyance, and chest-beating “look-at-me” attitude, Hank Aaron was pretty much the polar opposite. He was a study in grace, humility, and quiet dignity, a man who sought only to do his job and to do it to the best of whatever ability God blessed him with.
And in that sense, he became an American hero like few we’ve ever known – Black or white.
You see, for all Hank Aaron’s fame, glory, and professional accomplishments, what might have been his single most defining character trait – as both a baseball player and a man – was the fact that throughout his life he remained ever-quiet and unassuming, both on and off the field, and never attempted to draw attention to himself – even once.
That’s why most Americans – Black and white – are, even now, incapable of fully appreciating just how great Hank Aaron was and, more importantly, cannot fully comprehend the extent to which, on one magical night in April nearly 50 years ago, he quietly and with little fanfare managed to change our world forever.