In the sweltering south Georgia heat and humidity of July 1971, there was one thing I absolutely knew: Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves was going to be at my 10th birthday party.
My hero Hank, my friends and I would play catch and swing on a backyard jungle gym. We’d gorge ourselves on hamburgers, cake and ice cream. We’d laugh and horse around. It was going to be great.
Never mind that the 37-year-old home run king was 2,500 miles away in California between games with Los Angeles (Braves beat the Dodgers 3-1) and San Francisco (Braves beat the Giants 4-1). There was a one-day layover in between. I convinced myself he would make it. He didn’t, of course, but his star never tarnished as we both grew older.
And now, the slugger with the smooth, powerful swing has passed away. So too has part of my childhood and that of former kids all over America.
Aaron mesmerized young fans. He was the full package — he could do everything on the field, playing with a consistent and calm grace that masked the real struggles of race he dealt with daily. Back in 1971 as our country schools integrated, most kids didn’t seem to have Aaron as a hero. But in tributes online and in newspapers, that clearly wasn’t the case.
“He was hero to every boy born before 1965,” said Russell Guerard of Charleston.
There was just something about him, former GOP state Rep. Hunter Limbaugh of Columbia wrote.
“It’s not that those players [Mays, Clemente, Frank Robinson] lacked ‘something,’ but more that Aaron’s dignity was his essence. I’d like to think that even as a youngster, that’s what drew me to him.”
Robert Kittle, a former Columbia television newsman who now is communications director for the S.C. Attorney General’s office, remembers flocking to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch Aaron.
“I remember how exciting it was when he was chasing Babe Ruth’s record, that my hometown hero was about to make history,” Kittle recalled this week. “It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the harassment he had to deal with, including death threats, and that made his accomplishment even more amazing and made me respect him even more than I already did.”
Hampton native Marilyn Jones Armstrong, who now lives in North Carolina, explained that Aaron was why she loves baseball to this day.
“Daddy and I would watch the Braves (in pre-TBS days) when he made me memorize batting averages and always cheer for Hammerin’ Hank. I remember the 715th [home run that broke Babe Ruth’s record]. I remember ‘watching’ the Atlanta Braves on the radio with my grandmother at the river because we couldn’t get the game on TV.”
My father and I made an annual pilgrimage from south Georgia to Atlanta to watch Aaron and the Braves. A couple of times, we flew in a small plane — quite a thrill for a kid. One time, we climbed aboard the Nancy Hanks train in Macon and got to sit with the engineer.
A few years later when we lived in Atlanta, I remember stumbling and almost dropping my cornet when marching off of my high school football field. Why? Because there — clear as day leaning on the wire fence near the bench — was Henry Louis Aaron. He stood by himself, a dad waiting to see his sons play in the second half of the game.
My jaw still drops. Aaron had that effect.
“Sometimes we learn that our heroes really aren’t very heroic after all because they do something bad or we learn that they’re not very nice,” Kittle observed. “Hank was the opposite. As time went on, the more I learned about him, the more heroic he became, and his stature in the community grew because of his philanthropic work and mentoring.”
So now my boyhood hero is gone and so is a lingering part of my youth. I feel fortunate to have had him in my life, albeit at a distance.
He didn’t make the birthday party, but Lord have mercy, he made things better for so many others in so many ways.
Henry Louis Aaron, 1934-2021. Rest in peace.
Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.