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Hammerin’ Hank A Tribute to a Baseball Great and Civil Rights Icon

A lump rose to my throat last week when newscats ran the historic 715th home run by Hank Aaron, breaking Babe Ruth’s vaulted record which held for nearly 40 years. Aaron went on to rack up 755 home runs in his career. “Hammerin’ Hank” passed away in Atlanta this past Friday at the age of 86.

As a youngster who played baseball, I grew up watching Aaron’s exploits on the field. He accumulated quite a list of achievements in his  23 seasons: a 25-time All Star, three-time Gold Glover, National League batting champ in 1956 and 1959, 1957 NL Most Valuable Player and, of course, the home run king until Barry Bond smacked #756 in the summer of 2007. In 1982, Aaron was inducted on the first ballot into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron

I was a pretty sheltered kid, growing up in white suburbia in the  1960s, so I didn’t keep up with big social issues like racism. I didn’t care that Aaron was black, I just wanted that thrill when he smashed his next home run or snagged a long shot into right field. Later I learned that Aaron faced hateful discrimination for most of his baseball career.

Soldiering On

The racism began early. Playing sandlot ball in his home state of Alabama, Aaron’s mother would call him home to hide under the bed when the Ku Klux Klan was cruising the neighborhood.

Once, playing minor league ball in Jacksonville, Florida, white fans hurled rocks and tossed black cats on the field. In the majors, playing away games, hotels and restaurants would often bar Aaron, and he would have to hunt down accommodations by himself. Aaron soldiered on, playing the game he loved with excellence and enduring the contempt with quiet dignity.

In the early ’70s, as Aaron began to close in on Ruth’s home run record, the bigots really took the gloves off. He received letters peppered with racial slurs and death threats. At one point, the FBI got involved, investigating rumors of a kidnapping plot involving his children. Aaron hired armed bodyguards to protect him.

Still, Aaron would not let any of this derail him in his pursuit of the home run record. After he blasted #715 out of the Atlanta Braves ballpark on April 8, 1974, the accolades poured in. President Richard Nixon called to congratulate him, and he was showered with thousands of encouraging telegrams. “Having integrated sports in the Deep South, Aaron already was a hero to me as I sat in the stands that day,” President Jimmy Carter remarked on the  40th anniversary of the record-breaking smash. “He became the first black man for whom white fans in the South cheered … a humble man who did not seek the limelight; he just wanted to play baseball, which he did exquisitely.”

On the night of his accomplishment, Aaron got down on his knees and prayed. “I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other time in my life,” he would later write. Aaron went on to champion civil rights, establishing a foundation for black scholarships, supporting the NAACP, and boldly speaking out against racism. In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Hammerin’ Hank” wasn’t just a stellar baseball player and civil rights icon, but a man who held a deep, quiet faith. After befriending a Catholic priest, Aaron and his wife converted to Catholicism in 1959. The slugger kept a copy of  the classic work, The Imitation of Christ, in his locker.

A Beacon of Perseverance

Aaron’s faith is a beacon for those who are fighting the good fight. If you answer the call of God, there will be doubters, critics and naysayers. Count on it. These folks will try to burn you down with bitter words and belligerent actions, but in the words of the famous Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, you can make flame and brightness out of everything they throw into the fire. Aaron would later comment that the vitriol outside of the ballpark spurred him to excel on the diamond. “God gave me the separation, gave me the ability to separate the two of them,” he later remarked.

In the face of negativity, we can cave in or rise up. Those who choose the latter have discovered how to draw energy from hateful and unjust obstacles in their way. They have learned to build courage and sinew from each tough experience.

Paul wrote to the Roman church, “…we also glory in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

Hank Aaron went through a lot of suffering. Later he would tell a reporter, “All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

Yet Aaron did not become bitter. A person of lesser character might have sought revenge or hurled back insults, lowering himself to the very level of those who opposed him. But Aaron’s suffering produced character, and his character, molded by God, sought a better way.

Thanks, Hank. May your tribe increase.

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