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Happy Birthday, Mr. Aaron

I was raised a Giants fan. The first game I can remember going to was in the inaugural West Coast season of 1958 at Seals Stadium against the Milwaukee Braves. I proudly wore the Giants hat and Giants jersey my Dad bought for me to that game, and at seven years old, I thought I looked pretty cool. But then I saw those Braves uniforms. The red striping and the tomahawk across the front quickly redefined cool for me. I asked my Dad if I could have a Braves jersey, which required him to do his best Ward Cleaver impression when father had to straighten out the Beaver. So though I knew I wouldn’t be wearing Braves’ colors, I still couldn’t keep my eyes off the right fielder, who was right in front of us as we sat down the right field line.

As I watched that player wearing No. 44, I started to admire more than his outfit. I loved his batting stance, how he cocked those wrists and the fluid, graceful swing. So cool. A few weeks later, I purchased a pack of baseball cards, and hit the jackpot. Inside was the baseball card of Hank Aaron. When I heard that today was Aaron’s 80th birthday, I went to the closet and pulled out that same 1958 Hank Aaron card that I’ve never let go. On the back it read: “Hank was voted the N.L. Most Valuable Player last year. And no wonder — he led the loop in Homers, Runs batted in, and Runs scored. Hank’s performance was a big factor in the Braves’ Championship drive.”

When I turned 10, and was about to join my first little league baseball team, my Dad took me to the sporting good store to buy a bat. He showed me the bats with signatures of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the bat with Hank Aaron’s name on it. My Dad knew it probably wasn’t the best bat for me with its skinny handle and big barrel, but he saw my face and did what Mr. Cleaver likely would have done for the Beaver — he bought me my Hank Aaron bat.

Well, I didn’t quite have Hank’s mighty wrists or fluid stroke, but every once in a while pure luck would allow the ball to come in contact with the barrel and that ball would fly. The results weren’t that important. The main thing is that I felt as if I was just like Hank, and it made me think how great it would be to be Hank Aaron.

I guess I was pretty much shielded from the reality of the world at that early, innocent, naïve age, or I never would have said such a thing. As I started getting a little older, I learned about the word prejudice. And I learned about racism, and how my baseball heroes were being degraded and discriminated against because of their skin color. How could anyone hate my Hammerin’ Hank who played this game so beautifully?

On April 8, 1974, I was at a large party at an apartment in Washington, D.C. where a bunch of college seniors who were there on congressional internships had gathered to watch some baseball history. I think the first baseball stat I ever heard was “714,” the number of home runs hit by Babe Ruth. It was a sacred number, and one many said would never be broken. But on this night, Aaron was going for No. 715. Again, the bigots had returned, as Aaron received hate mail and death threats because he was zeroing in on the record of the white baseball icon. The party was loud and exuberant, but all I could do was watch silently and intently as Aaron came to the plate. He walked in his first at bat and was now up in the fourth against the Dodgers’ Al Downing with Darrell Evans on first after reaching base on an error. With 53,775 looking on at Atlanta Stadium and I assume millions watching around the nation on TV, those powerful wrists were unleashed once more, and the ball soared deep over the left field fence. Everybody around me jumped and hollered, but I stepped back quietly, not wanting to explain why my eyes were tearing up.

Hank finished his career with 755, and though Barry Bonds surpassed it, no one ever has topped Aaron in the incredible class and dignity that he has shown during and after his baseball career.

There are many baseball heroes, so named for getting the big hit or making the big pitch. But there are far fewer heroes who happen to play baseball. Hank Aaron will always be a hero to me, on and off the field.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Aaron.

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