Henry “Hank” Aaron first came to my attention in the 1957 World Series. I was a few days shy of my sixth birthday. The ’57 World Series was the first baseball game my family ever watched on a television set. We were farmers, and radio had been the media beaming information and entertainment into our farmhouse for about forty years.
Family members debated the decision to purchase the family’s first television. Television allowed us to see with our eyes the picture of the words we heard on radio. That clinched the decision to spring for a black and white tv, as indeed a late-season home run in the eleventh inning by Aaron had clinched the National League pennant for the Milwaukee Braves.
Seeing Aaron and Billy Burton performing admirably in the outfield and with the bat lit a spark in that six-year-old’s eyes that he could one day play baseball too. Before we had a television, we listened to baseball games on the radio. Usually, the game broadcasted into our hamlet in Middle Georgia featured the New York Yankees.
I had no idea what the Yankees looked like, but I knew their names, Mantle, Martin, Rizzuto, McDougal, Berra, Ford, and the rest. I had not heard of any of the Braves, but they performed so well that I learned their names: Spann, Adcock, Burdette, Matthews, Crandall, and Bob Buhl was always warming up in the bullpen, which didn’t look like any bullpen we had on the farm. One player whose name rolled off the announcer’s tongue with an air of importance was Henry “Hank” Aaron. Long before Aaron was “The Hammer,” or “Hammerin Hank,” he was Henry “Hank” Aaron. And seeing that Aaron and Burton looked like me, wow, a baseball player is what I wanted to be.
As fate would have it, I didn’t play professional baseball. Instead, I taught on the elementary and college level, practiced law, and now I sometimes write about baseball, including a book on the Negro Leagues where Aaron got his start (The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball (Cascade Publishing House, Atlanta, 2019).
On the day that “The Hammer” transitioned, 13 days shy of his 87th birthday , I took a trip to the tax office at Greenbriar Mall. I needed a tag for a new car I purchased in December, a Jaguar convertible. My wife says I am too old for a convertible, but it is a car that I always wanted, and seeing that later in the year, I will reach my seventh decade, I decided to fulfill that dream.
The night before, I planned my morning journey to the tag office. A long line greets you every day. You must get up early in the morning for the privilege to stand in the front of the line. It was a cold morning.
Taking the back way just as the first light of dawn broke through the sky, I turned down Adams Street, and as I often do when passing the home of Henry Aaron, I took a glance and prayed that all was well with him. My mind reflected on the evening I spent at Aaron’s house in the mid-1990s at a fundraiser for Marvin Arrington, who was running for mayor of Atlanta.
While the guests were outside, I wandered into the house to use the restroom; I passed through Aaron’s den and was mesmerized by the sight of every Aaron baseball card hanging on the walls around the room. I spent more time viewing Aaron’s baseball card collection than outside hobnobbing with the politicos. When I had a chance to speak with Aaron, I complimented him on his collection, then I told him, I have one card that you do not have on your wall. Aaron looked stunned, then said, “Oh yeah?
“Yeah,” I said, “I have a Tommie Aaron.” He smiled.
I think Aaron was pleased to know that someone treasured having a Tommie Aaron baseball card. The two of them have hit more home runs than any brother act in Major League Baseball.
I passed his home and took the curve in the road up to Childress. Nothing appeared any different than on other trips by his house. I arrived early at the tag office; a long line had already formed. The line would have been much worse if I had waited later in the day.
A young, 30ish Black woman was barking out orders explaining just how it would go today if you expected to receive any service from the tax commissioner. This clerk separated those under 65 years of age in a line on the entrance door’s right side. The 65 and up group was on the left side of the door. We stood outside in the cold and the rain. I took my place at the end of the line. I noticed that every senior citizen this young clerk interacted with, there ensured a disagreeable conversation. The young clerk raised her voice rudely, repeatedly, in response to questions raised by the seniors.
Then a young, 30 something well-dressed Black man in hip-hop garb strolled up to the senior line because it was shorter than the young people’s line. Several seniors told him that line was for people 65 and above and that unless he had taken incredible care of himself, his line was the long one on the other side of the door.
The young man was disappointed and rudely yelled: “Okay, you old folks can have this line!”
When I was a younger man, I never thought it was a practical reality to be dismissive to my elders. Seniors were people to cherish, to help, and from whom to soak up wisdom. But this new crop doesn’t seem to know that it flourishes because of the pathway cleared by the “old folks.”
Yet, young people do not know the journey and thus do not respect the journey. They think that young people rule the planet. And while older people are dying in large numbers, many still survive because the “old folks” have learned the secret to longevity. The young cannot envision they will reach the threescore and ten years promised in the scripture. A great many are gone before age thirty. They have no clue that Divine Grace can carry “old folks” into their hundreds living comfortably on checks that were cashed long before many of the young crowd were born.
While standing in line, my phone began to ding. First, I ignored calls from several baseball coaches thinking that the call could wait until I returned home. Then putting my phone away, a notice from Politico popped up. The headlined read HENRY “HANK” AARON DEAD.
That was a jolt I didn’t expect, like a family member learning on television that a relative died in an accident. This is such a cold and callous headline. Politico could have at least written, Henry “Hank” Aaron Has Died. I imagine that headline was written by a young journalist who placed little value on the lives of older people. Aaron’s transition deserves more solemnity than an announcement that he is dead.
Are there any “Baby Boomers” staffing news rooms these days? Surely a “Boomer” would have edited DEAD from that headline out of respect for the life of, well, any human.
So, what does all this have to do with Hank Aaron?
Henry “Hank” Aaron had manners — good manners. He respected the space of other people. When the public address announcer introduced Aaron, he would saunter toward home plate, usually with his bat in one hand and his helmet in the other hand. If it was a home game, and he was coming from the home team on-deck circle, Aaron walked behind the Homeplate umpire so as not to disrespect the umpire’s space by walking in front of him, then put on his cap, cock his bat, and the rest you can read in the record books.
Young people can learn manners from Aaron’s life. A little respect goes a long way, even with disagreeable people. When the young tax clerk came to me, she asked for my bill of sale. I handed it to her. There were several pages stapled to it. She refused to take it and barked at me, “I said I need your bill of sale.”
“This is my bill of sale,” I replied.
“I don’t need all that,” she bellowed.
“Well, what do you need,” I asked, confused, and getting a little agitated.
Pointing at the stapled document in my hand, she said, “I don’t need all of that.”
Bingo, now I get it.
“So, what you want is the top sheet and not the other pages,” with a tinge of sarcasm, I queried?
“Yes,” she impatiently stated.
“I didn’t understand you,” I replied.
To which the young clerk offered: “Well, it’s the mask; it’s hard to understand me with my mask on.”
“Oh, I heard what you said. I didn’t understand what you wanted me to give you. It’s a matter of communication,” I thundered, getting a bit flushed in the cheeks.
“You don’t understand,” she roared, telling the old fool off.
“Oh, I understand alright, you don’t understand how to talk to people,” detaching the one sheet she wanted and handing it to her.
Manners, older people have them, or at least most. Few young people have them, some do. Aaron had manners. His manners were on display every night the Braves beamed into American homes. My mom taught me manners, and I saw them reinforced every time I watched Aaron play baseball.
Henry “Hank” Aaron was consistent. Day in and day out, you could count on Aaron showing up and performing at a high level. As the late 1950s gave way to the 1960s, my two favorite baseball players were Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. I believed that one of them would be the first to hit 60 homers in a season since George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Also, I believed that Mantle or Mays would claim the career home run record of 714. Both had seasons of 50 plus homers, but neither hit 60 in a season nor did either catch Ruth in career homer runs. Mays came close at 660.
Aaron never hit 50 homers in a season. He never hit over 47 in any campaign. So how did he get to 755 home runs when other sluggers failed to reach this summit?
By consistency. In his first 20 years in the league, Aaron averaged 39 home runs a season to surpass Ruth at 715. His production dropped over his last two years, but Aaron managed to average 33 homers for each season he played.He went to work every day. He put in the same excellent effort. When he walked away from his baseball career, he was the “King of Swat”!
Some young people lack the patience to be consistent. They want it right now, just the way they like. Like the tag clerk, she did not want to be responsible for the complete document, she only wanted what she wanted, and that old dude must not be very bright because he doesn’t understand all I am asking for is the top sheet.
Ironically, I had been to the tag office the previous day, but the dealer had not submitted the paperwork, so I received instructions to go back. I encountered this same tag clerk on my visit the day before, and she was charming. She had an adorable spirit. She was patient; she was kind and immensely helpful to the seniors.
Aaron found his comfort level. It was not as flashy as Mays, nor did he hit the tape measured shots of Mantle, but he maintained a consistent productive level.
We all should strive to have Henry “Hank” Aaron’s manners and apply his consistent approach to reach our goals.
Thank you, Mr. Aaron, you taught me much more about life than about baseball, and I am good with this fact.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. Harvey is an engaging public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit Harold’s official website.
Photo credit: Wikipedia