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Childhood hero’s passing brings back memories

Times Observer Photo by Steve Younger As a 12-year-old, Steve Younger did a book report on his hero, Hank Aaron.

I was saddened to hear of Hank Aaron’s passing on Friday. I was at work when I saw in a news bulletin that “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, the legendary baseball player, had died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86.

The news of his passing brought back a flood of memories from my childhood. I had the honor of spending some time with Mr. Aaron when I was a 12-year-old boy. I was in the sixth grade and we had to do a book report on one of our heroes at the time.

My choice was easy.

I loved baseball, I lived baseball, and every 12-year old who played baseball at the time Hank was chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time record loved him.

Here is how we met.

My dad was a part-time college English professor in the evenings and, unbeknownst to me, had made arrangements to bring Hank in as a speaker to talk about civil rights and the battles he faced chasing the Babe’s home run record. My dad didn’t know I did the report on Hank, so when he asked me if I wanted to ride in a limousine to pick up the Hall-of-Famer at the airport I told him of the book report and my dad said, “Bring that report. You just might get him to autograph it.”

Oh, was I excited to go, right up until my mom made me get dressed up. “You are going to meet someone famous,” she said, “you need to look good.”

I didn’t care, I grabbed my report and my baseball glove and headed out the door to the college where the limousine would pick up me and my dad.

Hank wasn’t just a baseball player to me; he was larger than life. He played from 1954 through 1976 with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers; he made the all-star team an incredible 25 times; was the National League Valuable Player in 1957; and would also win his only World Series championship that same year. He would finish his career with an amazing 755 home runs, a .305 batting average and 2,297 RBIs, a record that still stands today.

I learned through my book report and that evening’s lecture that Hank was born into poverty on Feb. 5, 1934, in the segregated city of Mobile, Alabama.

His baseball career began in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League and he was quickly brought up to the Milwaukee Braves where he would begin to attack the record book.

As I look back on my old book report and did some new research, I was saddened to hear of how he was treated as a Black man closing in on a white man’s home run record in the 1970s. It wasn’t just that he chose to stay in separate hotels from his teammates during the home run record chase, it was that he had to do it for security reasons, because his life was threatened.

There was more.

Hank’s daughter, who was a college student at the time, had to remain on campus; his two sons had to be escorted to and from school and were not allowed recess outside in order to keep them safe; threats were made on his life and that of his family if he passed the Babe and the record.

It was how Aaron, the man, not the baseball player, chose to live his life. He kept the boxes of hate mail. He said it drove him to be remembered for so much more than a baseball player. In an interview with USA Today, he said, “I want to be remembered as someone who was able to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played … and be able to help mankind, help other people, to do things that necessarily would help people that didn’t have the ability or the know-how like I did.”

Aaron was a good man, a great baseball player who, until his death, never spoke badly about Barry Bonds breaking his home run record under the stain of performance-enhancing abuse. All Hank would say is, “If someone did take those illegal drugs, the Hall of Fame would certainly not be a place for them.” He even sent a congratulatory video that was played on the stadium scoreboard when Bonds broke Hank’s record.

Aaron may have been born into poverty, but he lived a rich life. He never forgot where he came from, yet loved living his life among the people. This was evidenced when it was discovered that he would fly into Cleveland to watch his favorite football team, the Browns, play; put on his cold-weather gear; and sit in the Dawg Pound and be with people “having fun,” as he would say later in a television interview with Bob Costas.

Hank and my dad became friends — maybe it was because of their shared love of the Browns, I don’t know. I never appreciated that, I guess, but meeting Hank, hearing him speak of the trials he faced and sharing a meal with him was enough for me at the time. My dad didn’t speak of it often, but they were friends. It was really that simple.

A part of my childhood died last Friday when Hank Aaron left this planet, but he did remind me that I chose my childhood heroes well. He lived a rich life, a person who just happened to be a pretty great baseball player. So long, Hank. Thanks for the memories.

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