Last week, one of my boyhood heroes passed away – Hammering Henry “Hank” Aaron. Upon getting the news my mind immediately went back to my teenage years growing up in Chicago. I remembered the walls of my bedroom being covered with the Sports illustrated cover shots of all my favorite ball players; Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and of coarse, Hank Aaron. I could perfectly emulate all of their batting stances. I would fluctuate between them in my own times at bat during the seasons of my pony league and high school varsity baseball teams. By my junior year of high school, I was firmly settled on one – Hank Aaron’s. I loved how he waggled his bat back and forth before whipping it into a perfectly level swing, even on his practice swings.
If you played varsity baseball in Chicago in those days, you got a season long pass to the Wrigley Field bleachers and the Chicago Cubs baseball games. I never missed a weekend when one of the great right fielders of all times came to town. They were Frank Robinson or Vada Pinson when the Reds were in town, Roberto Clemente when the Pirates were in town, Tommy Davis when the Dodgers were in town, Willie Mays patrolled the entire outfield, so he was in right field as much as his actual position in center field when the Giants were in town and of coarse Hank Aaron when the Braves were in town. At least 90% or more of the right field “bleacher bums”, as they were called, were white. Part of their tradition was to harass the visiting right fielders. That would be fine under normal circumstances. But as the day got longer and the fans got drunker, the racial epithets hurled at the right fielders got more and vulgar.
They were hard on all of the great right fielders, but for some reason they were especially hard on Hank Aaron. Maybe it was because he absolutely killed them on the ball field every time the Braves came to town. The last time I saw him play was in the spring of 1964, when he went six for eight in a double header, including two home runs and a double. Besides calling him every kind of N word you can think of and then some, they hurled cups of beer and other debris at him when he went to field a fly ball. They would throw personal items on the field and demand he go retrieve them. He dared not oblige them because he knew they would only get worse if he refused or took the items to the dugout. I was close enough to him see the hurt and frustration in his eyes as he submitted to their indignities. I remember one man egging his son, who looked to be about seven years old, to throw his baseball glove on the field. The bewildered looking young boy reluctantly obeyed his father. That set the whole bleacher crowd off, demanding he retrieve the glove. Finally seeing the glove, he signaled to the first base umpire for time out so he could retrieve it. The crowd never considered he could have ruined his entire career if he hadn’t seen it and tripped over it. I supposed they didn’t care. As he walked toward the wall with the glove the rowdy crowd unleashed the worst barrage of racial epithets of the day. I was 16 at the time and I had two younger friends with me, ages 14 and 15. I remember catching the eye of one of the rioters. He looked at the young, brown faces of me and the other two kids. I’ll never forget the look of shame and guilt on the grown man’s face, just before he turned away from us and continued his riotous behavior. Things got so bad that the announcer had to get on the loud speaker and demand that the fans behave themselves. Fittingly, Hank came to the plate in the visiting half of the next inning and hit a screaming line drive off the wall in right-center field. He returned to his position in right field in the home half of the inning with the same quiet dignity and graceful stride he displayed the entire game. I heard one of the rioters yell, “Hey Hank, you got a cannon in that bat of yours”? Hank kept his back to the stands, as though the fan wasn’t there.
I tell that story because much has been made over the terrible ordeal Hank was put through in the run up to breaking Ruth’s record. I think the world should know that the harassment of Hank Aaron and all the other black ball players of his time didn’t end with Jackie Robinson in the 1947 season. Almost all the black ball players of Hank’s time are in the Hall of Fame, including of course, Hank himself. But for their entire careers, they were never allowed to forget they were black, and that there was a certain part of America that hated them and didn’t feel they belonged. Many argue that baseball is one of the most difficult sports of all to master. There is a definite element danger in the extremely difficult tasks of hitting round baseballs with round bats, while the ball is travelling at you at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour and trying to catch balls travelling up the 200 miles per hour. It takes at least a decade of training early in life to be able to do those things consistently. Yet Hank and his black peers managed to do those things in an atmosphere of constant abuse and physical threats to their safety.
Strangely, as I listened and watched celebrities of all variety praise and memorialize him and give their accounts of how stoically he endured the thousands of hate mail and threats to his family he received in 1974 as he approached the Babe’s record, my thoughts immediately went back to the look on the face of the tormenter who’s eye I caught on that day in 1964. In retrospect, I think that man’s actions were representative of two realities about our country today. First there is a part of America that is committed to a fascist America and an end to democracy. Secondly, a substantial number of that group knows in their hearts that view of America is wrong yet are held hostage by their peers and their collective upbringing and values and commitment to white privilege. That considered, the best tribute to Hank Aaron would be the conviction of Trump in his impeachment trail. As I’ve said before, anything less than a conviction would be a vote to end democracy in the U.S. The leadership expressed by a vote to convict by the seventeen or eighteen Republicans needed would demonstrate that the U.S. will always fight for democracy and will not tolerate any threat to it. Of equal importance is that such action would give cover to the millions of Republicans who I’m sure don’t truly have their hearts in ending democracy favor of fascism and white privilege. We must all pray that at least 40% of the Republicans in the Senate fine something close to the courage of Hank Aaron and vote to preserve our democracy by voting to convict Donald Trump.