I saw Hank Aaron for the first time in 1966. It was the Braves’ first season in Atlanta. I don’t remember who we played, but I do remember we lost. My cousin, who was a bit younger than my eight years, cried. I should have told him there’s no crying in baseball.
But the one thing I do remember about that day was when number 44 came to bat. There was both a hush and a buzz in the crowd. I could hear my uncles saying, here he comes, Hank’s at bat. Watching him that day was like riding a roller coaster. The anticipation as the pitcher wound up, the sudden plunge as the ball sped to and across home plate. Hank Aaron struck out at that bat.
But I remember over the next eight years; there was one thing that Hank Aaron did at every at-bat.
Always Swing for the Fences
He always swung for the fences. He didn’t always get a home run. In fact, his record of total bases was about twice as many as his home run record would achieve. But, every swing, you watched in anticipation because you knew he was swinging for the fences.
And that’s the way I’ve tried to live my life, swinging for the fences. I not only don’t always hit a home run, I rarely do. But it’s not for want of trying.
In 1978, I began running for fitness. I needed to lose the pounds I had put on since graduating high school five years earlier. About three months later, I lined up with 5,000 other runners at my first Peachtree Road Race.
And I swung for the fences.
It was one of my favorite Peachtrees because, not knowing any better, I started at the back of the pack. So for the next 40 minutes, I passed runners by the hundreds. I didn’t win the race, but it was one of my highest finishes, in the high double digits.
It’s Okay to Strike Out
A baseball traveling toward home plate in the major leagues is moving at almost 100 MPH. That means it gets there in about 400 milliseconds, a literal blink of an eye. It takes about 150 milliseconds to swing the bat. Do the math.
A major league hitter will develop an eye and feel for the ball throughout a career, gauging where he thinks it will be when it crosses over the plate. Operative word: thinks. Hank Aaron swung with all his might putting his bat where he anticipated the ball to be.
He struck out about twice as often as he hit a home run.
But nobody remembers that.
That taught me that it’s okay to strike out. If. If, you achieve your goals. If not, all people were remember were the strikeouts.
If you are a winner, people remember you for winning. It’s okay to strike out occasionally.
Don’t Let Adversity Slow You Down
On April 13, 1954, Aaron made his major league debut and was hitless in five at-bats. If that were me, I would have probably found a new career. But not Hank. He kept at it and became one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Because he didn’t let adversity slow him down.
Of course, that lousy start was far from the worst adversity Hank Aaron faced. Aaron started in the Negro leagues, eight years after Frankie Robinson broke the color barrier. But his color couldn’t outweigh his talent, and three months later, he was offered two Major League contracts. Fortunately for Atlanta, he turned down the Giants because the Milwaukee Braves offered him $50 more.
He began his major league career about a year and a half before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat.
But as a black player in the fifties and sixties, that would not end the racial adversity he faced. Even as late as the seventies, he received hate mail and death threats on the brink of setting the all-time home run record. Eight years after Selma and six years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, the greatest player in baseball history was still treated by some with hatred.
But on on April 8, 1974, in the heart of the south, 53,775 cheered Hank Aaron on as he rounded the bases for the 715th time.
I have never known the adversity Hank Aaron faced, and it is unlikely that I ever will. But he still taught me to stand tall no matter what life throws at me. To face adversity and face it down until you beat it down.
Always Give 100%
One notable fact to me was that one of his best seasons was the year I was born. He hit .314 with 27 home runs and 106 RBIs, in 1955. Then, I see him for the first time eleven years later, and eight years after that, in 1974, he hit number 715 off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing at a home game in Atlanta. His major league career spanned 22 years, beginning and ending in Milwaukee.
And every time at bat, he gave 100%. He didn’t know how to hold back. At the start of the 1974 season, one shy of Babe Ruth’s record, the Braves’ first game was on the road in Cincinnati. The Braves’ manager wanted to bench him until they got home to Atlanta so that he could break the record to a home crowd, but the baseball commissioner said no. He’s in the lineup; he has to play.
The coach asked him to lay back a bit as it was unlikely Hank wouldn’t break the record otherwise. But he always gave 100%. He played two out of three games in the series, tying the record in his very first at-bat. On his first swing of the season. Luckily for the home town crowd, he didn’t hit another homer in that series. But not for want of trying.
There are times in my life when I didn’t give 100%. And now, I can look back at those times with regret. Thinking, if only. But I can’t change that. I can only change today. So each day, first thing in the morning, I think about the day ahead. I think about what I can do to make me, my family, my life, and my world just a little better.
And I give it 100%
Don’t Worry About What People Think
This one comes easy for me now. I don’t care what other people think. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. There are about a half dozen people on the planet of which I care deeply what they think. And I want them to think the best.
Hank Aaron faced a lot of negativity in his life and career. And I can’t speak to how he felt about that. I don’t know if he cared or worried about what the haters thought. I can only judge by what he did.
And what he did was stand tall. Every at-bat, he walked out to that plate and focused for just a second on the spot about 400 feet away. Then he returned focus to a place only 60 feet away.
And then he responded to all of those people who put him down with a single, mighty swing of a 42-ounce piece of wood that was 36 inches long. It looked to me like he let them know that he didn’t care what they thought.
We Can’t All Be Hank Aaron
This isn’t one that Hank taught me, but one I’ve learned through many trials and almost as many errors. We can’t all be Hank Aaron. If we were, then he wouldn’t have been so special.
But we can all be the best we can be. Every day. I coached a little league team for a short while. And I remember this one kid that wanted to be Hank Aaron. He wanted to hit a home run every time. He never did. He almost always struck out.
One day, I took him aside, and we practice hitting for a bit. I convinced him to slow down, focus on the ball and try to hit a single. It didn’t take much practice until he hit a solid ground ball through the gap into the outfield with almost every swing.
Then, I explained to him that he couldn’t hit a home run every time. It was likely he could never hit a home run. But if he hit a single every time at-bat, that would give him a batting average of 1,000. A perfect average. I also told him that if every player on the team hit a single, we would never lose a game. He went on to be one of the best players on the team.
We can’t all be Hank Aaron.
But we can all give it our best every time. Our best may not always be good enough, but it’s still our best.
I shared the same town with Hank Aaron for a long time, but I never met the man. Almost, but not quite. After he briefly went back to Milwaukee and then retired, he made his home in Atlanta’s West End.
One day around 1980, I was working on a Burger King in West End. I’d rather eat that baseball in the picture than eat a Burger King. But next door, there was this little Church’s Fried Chicken. No dining room, no drive-thru, just a walk-up window. It didn’t even have a parking lot. You parked on the street, walked up the sidewalk, and ordered at the window.
So, I did. Or tried to. There was a Mercedes parked on the curb and one man at the window when I got there. And he was still standing there talking and laughing with the girl at the window long after he got his box of chicken. I looked back at the car and then back at the cute girl at the window.
Some rich old asshole was flirting with a teenage girl. And more
importantly, he was between me and a three-piece dark with extra jalapenos.
Finally, after my almost non-existent patience had clicked over into the red, he turned and walked away. I didn’t even see him, so focused was my wrath on the poor girl I was about to let loose on.
“Don’t you know who that was?” she laughed.
I turned and caught his face as he ducked into the car and drove away.
“I do now.”
That baseball pictured above has sat on my desk for about 40 years. It is one of my most prized possessions. Not because it’s worth a lot of money; it’s not. I have no documentation proving that Hank signed it. I know he did because I know the provenance. I know how that baseball got from my hand to his and back again. Three degrees of separation.
I treasure it for the memories it brings back and the lessons that Hank Aaron taught me.
Rest in peace, Hank.