It was a spring Monday evening, April 8, to be exact, and I was an eleven year old boy camping at High Falls State Park in Jackson, Georgia with my family and our friends, the Boyds. Aunt Lorraine - my brother and sister and I called her "Aunt" rather than "Mrs." - had the Atlanta Braves game playing on her radio as the adults sat outside the campers talking. What we kids were up to has long since been lost in my memory, but I hope to never forget the thrill that radio brought that dark night.
Cheers erupted from campsites, from tents and travel trailers, and Aunt Lorraine was on her feet, dancing, squealing, celebrating. Way up in Atlanta, a fellow was circling the bases after knocking a home run, only the 715th of his career. Hank Aaron, an Atlanta Brave, had just supplanted Babe Ruth as baseball's all-time home run champion. The Boyd's oldest son, Eddie, and I rushed to grab our gloves and find enough light to play pitch for a few minutes. Somehow, it made us feel a little closer to the action.
And now, this Friday January 22, 2021, I hear the news that Hammerin' Hank has died at the age of 86. It reminds me of King David's words, upon hearing of the death of Abner, as recorded in 2 Samuel 3:38. The English Standard Version renders it thusly, "Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?" One has certainly passed in Atlanta, Georgia.
Hank Aaron was a hero, pure and simple. He and his bat helped changed the perspectives of many, and ultimately he played a huge part in transforming the South, and the nation. Standing on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson and other trailblazers, and then excelling in a world still desperately trying to make sense of the Civil Rights Movement and to live into it, he took many of us on his back and helped carry us a little further down the road toward the dream that Dr. King envisioned.
Sure, there were detractors and haters who didn't want him to break The Babe's record. Sadly, they wrote him nasty letters and made death threats against him. But still he carried on with grace and dignity. And he kept on knocking 'em out of the park.
There's something I remember about that campground that spring night. All those people yelling and cheering had one thing in common - every last one was white. In that moment it didn't matter what color Hank Aaron's skin was; all that counted was that he had an "A" on his ball cap, that he was an Atlanta Brave, that he was our hero.
I've thought about that a lot through the years. It's hard to hate somebody you cheer for, somebody you look up to and admire. Here I was, a child of the South, a white boy, and I wanted to be like Hank Aaron, a black man. Another little step down the road toward the dream.
We sure haven't gotten it perfectly right in the almost 50 years since Hank Aaron belted it over the fence for the 715th time. In fact, we're often times a long way from the dream. That doesn't diminish for a second Hank Aaron's power to impact the world with the swing of a wooden bat. It just means we owe a lot to #44, to a prince and a great man, to one who left the world a whole lot better than when he found it.