There’s a story I love about young Henry Aaron. It’s about how he went to his father one day and exclaimed that he had decided what he was going to do when he grew up: He wanted to become an airline pilot.
“There ain’t no Black airline pilots,” his father said.
The young Aaron thought about that for a while and, coming to a decision, told his father that he would instead become a Major League baseball player.
Again, his father looked at him and explained, “Ain’t no Black baseball players either.”
The anecdote has always stood out to me because the boy who would grow up to be “Hamerin’ Hank” wasn’t blind to the racial realities of the Deep South. Growing up in Depression-era Mobile, Alabama, he lived with the constant reminder of Jim Crow and segregation when he would hide under the bed at his mother’s insistence every time the KKK marched down the street of his poor, black neighborhood, which members often did.
He knew that unlike white kids, Black children did not get to dream about being a Major League ball player. But that didn’t stop him. Nothing would stop him––not then, and not when he was chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
Aaron used to say that period of time should have been the best in his life, but it was in fact the worst. As he made gains at overtaking Ruth’s record, the vitriol and hatred he faced every day only increased. While a white player would have bathed in the adoration of a fawning public, Aaron felt the full weight of racism as he received mountains of fan mail filled with insults and threats.
“If you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers,” one letter read, “I have a contract out on you. Over 700, and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell.”
The threats came fast and furious, many serious enough to have the FBI investigate, until he was forced to have security by his side at all times. His daughter was shadowed by law enforcement officers out of fear of kidnapping and he found his life in danger every time he stepped to the plate.
But he was done hiding from the KKK, and the same boy who wouldn’t let Jim Crow stop his boyhood dreams wasn’t going to let these madmen stop him as an adult. In fact, it made him hit the ball harder.
Archimedes, the renowned Ancient Greek mathematician, once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a strong place to stand, and I will move the world.” Well, Hammerin’ Hank didn’t have a lever. But he did have a bat, a glove and an opportunity. That’s how he changed the world.
I think about Hammerin’ Hank when I see people criticizing my friend, Hall of Fame coach Dawn Staley. I think about Hammerin’ Hank when I hear people telling Lebron James to “Shut up and dribble.” I think about Hammerin’ Hank when they tell Colin Kaepernick to stop taking a knee.
Well, Kaepernick’s action is symbolic. He’s standing up, just like Hank Aaron.
Aaron recalled hanging out with one of his oldest friends at a hotel bar in Los Angeles when an angry white man walked up to the legend, and said, “You think you’re better than us. All you can do is hit a baseball.”
But that was the point, wasn’t it? He didn’t just hit a baseball any more than Staley just coaches, James just plays basketball or Kaepernick just kneels. And the people who hate what they stand for––or just hate the color of their skin––lash out with that hate hoping to stop them from telling the truth.
Hank Aaron didn’t let that hate stop him. He just hit harder...and harder...and harder...and, on April 8, 1974, he broke Babe Ruth’s record. And he did it in Atlanta.
And when the record was done, he still kept pushing. Because that’s how you change the world.
The players may have changed , but the playbook remains the same.
I read once that in order to love who you are, you cannot hate the experience that shaped you. Hank Aaron knew the experiences that shaped him, his career, his community, his nation and baseball. More importantly, he knew that history gave him the strength to MAKE history. He became something more than just a baseball player...something bigger than baseball itself. He became an American hero.