What Young People Can Learn From Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron

His life is one for the record books

Henry “Hank” Aaron first came to my attention in the 1957 World Series — 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 before then, radio had beamed information and entertainment into our farmhouse for about 40 years.

Family members debated the decision to purchase our first television. It allowed us to see with our eyes the picture of the words we heard on the radio. That clinched the decision to spring for a black-and-white TV set, especially once a late-season home run in the 11th inning by Aaron clinched the National League pennant for the Milwaukee Braves. Seeing Aaron and Billy Burton perform admirably in the outfield and with the bat lit a spark in my six-year-old eyes that I could one day play baseball, too.

And seeing that Aaron and Burton looked like me, a baseball player is what I wanted to be.

Usually, the games that radio broadcast 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, McDougald, Berra, Ford, and the rest. I had not heard of any of the Braves, but they performed so well that I learned their names: Spahn, Adcock, Burdette, Mathews, Crandall. Bob Buhl always warmed 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, a baseball player is who I wanted to be.

As fate would have it, I didn’t play professional baseball. Instead, I taught on the elementary and college level and practiced law. 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.

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 Jaguar convertible I purchased in December. My wife says I’m too old for a convertible, but it’s a car that I always wanted. Since I’ll reach my seventh decade later this year, I decided to fulfill that dream.

I took 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 Henry Aaron’s home, 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 then running for mayor of Atlanta.

While the guests gathered 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 his baseball card collection than outside hobnobbing with politicos. When I had a chance to speak with the baseball great, I complimented him on his collection. “I have one card that you do not have on your wall,” I told him. Aaron looked stunned and 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.

In the present day, 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. A young Black clerk in her thirties barked orders on how it would go if we expected to receive any service from the tax commissioner. She separated those under 65 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 interaction the young clerk had with a senior resulted in a disagreeable conversation. 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 over 65 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 younger, I never thought it was a practical reality to dismiss my elders. Seniors were people to cherish, to help, and from whom to soak up wisdom. But some don’t seem to know that they flourish because of the pathway cleared by the “old folks.”

They do not know or respect the journey. 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 three score and 10 years promised in the scripture. A great many are gone before age 30. 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; I thought it could wait until I returned home. While putting my phone away, a notification from Politico popped up. The headline 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. It’s such a cold and callous headline. Politico could have at least written: Henry “Hank” Aaron Has Died. Aaron’s transition deserves more solemnity than an announcement that he is dead.

What does all this have to do with the life of Hank Aaron? Good question.

Henry “Hank” Aaron had manners — good ones. 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. If it was a home game, and he was coming from the home team on-deck circle, Aaron walked behind the home plate umpire so as not to disrespect the umpire’s space by walking in front of him. He then put on his cap, cocked his bat, and the rest you read in the record books.

Aaron’s 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 also consistent. Day in and day out, you could count on him 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 thought 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 home runs — though Mays came close.

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 by the end 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 new “King of Swat.”

Aaron found his comfort level. He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, nor did he hit the tape-measured Mantle shots, but he maintained a consistent, productive one.

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.

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 hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com.

Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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