The day was August 9, 1967 and my parents gave me an early birthday gift as I would turn 7 on the first of September. All summer I had watched every Met game I could on TV and they decided it was a time for me to see my first live baseball game. And they knew my favorite player Tom Seaver would be pitching that day in his rookie season but on that day I also got to see Hank Aaron because the Mets were hosting the Braves.
In many ways it was a typical Seaver game as he hurled a complete game and beat the Braves 5-1 for his 11th win of the season but on that day I also got to see Hank Aaron whose swing was so perfect and although he only went 1 for 4 on that day even my not yet 7 year old eyes knew I was seeing someone special.
On the drive home my parents talked to me about the game and told me I saw 2 great platers today–one in Seaver on his way to greatness and one in Aaron who showed us that talent is never enough and must be coupled with desire to achieve greatness. I remember my Dad saying to me that Aaron understood there is so much you could do to help a team besides swinging the bat which is ironic considering he was talking about the man who would pass the home run record of Babe Ruth 7 years later.
When you look at his numbers the most amazing stat is he hit all those home runs and never struck out more than 100 times in any one season. He made contact and his swing was an RBI producer that plated over 100 runs in 9 seasons of his career. In fact in the 1973 season as he was chasing the Babe Ruth record he crushed 40 homers and drove in 96 runs as a 39 year old player.
All of those numbers are so impressive but what he had to endure in that Ruth chase was something that most people would never be able to endure. Hate mail and death threats from racists had to put fear in his heart but he never wavered in his pursuit of his goals.
And on that ride home as a soon to be 7 year old my dad talked to me about racism for the first time in my life and tried to educate me on how sports can be a place where people of all colors and creeds could be teammates but the harsh reality is the world sometimes tries to treat people of different colors in a cruel fashion and that is not the way God wants us to treat others.
When you think about it just 8 months later Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered and I remember watching that news on TV with my parents as tears welled up in all of our eyes as the country suffered a terrible loss on that day. But it reinforced the words of my Dad that racism in this country exists and we are either part of the solution or part of the problem–there is no gray area.
The life of Hank Aaron from his early days of playing in The Negro Leagues as black ballplayers were not permitted into Major League Baseball through the hate and venom that he had to endure in chasing Ruth’s record showed us all that desire coupled with talent can beat any foe–even a racist mob. And it also showed us that people can come together to fight that foe as a group which we must ALWAYS remember especially in these times we are living in right now.
As a reporter I met Hank Aaron a few times and he always spoke glowingly about the game of baseball–a sport he loved and he represented the concept that sports can unite no matter how many forces want to divide us. He will always be the home run champion in my eyes but so much more than that.
Along with Tom Seaver, he put the first live baseball pictures in my mind that would stay there forever and watching them taught me that the love of baseball that my parents introduced me to on that summer day in 1967 would never leave my soul. Both men have passed away in the last year and I hope my parents can find them in heaven and thank them for giving their son a great gift–baseball–the best friend that never leaves his side.
Rest in Peace-Hank Aaron–We love you and will never forget you and hope to honor you by fighting racism on every street corner, in every business and in every way.