Growing up in New England, I had two sports heroes. One was Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in baseball history and the other was Bill Russell, the winner of the most championships in the history of the NBA. For a youngster, watching them play was a privilege but at that age, I didn’t understand that being a hero is much more than just playing a game.
Williams grew up in a ramshackle house in San Diego with a Mother who gave her time to charity instead of her family and a Dad who was seldom there. Russell was born in segregated Louisiana in the 1930’s before the family moved to Oakland when he was eight years old. His Mom passed away when he was 12 and the family lived in public housing while his Dad held things together making a living as a janitor and then a steel worker. This was the history I never knew as a young sports fan.
Looking at the big picture, you have to wonder where these two young men achieved the character to become real heroes. But real heroes they were, as Williams gave up five years of his career to serve in two wars and was then the driving force in establishing the Jimmy Fund, the fund-raising arm of the Dana-Farber Cancer Clinic, which saves the lives of children with cancer. Russell overcame the racism of the NBA to speak up for causes long before it was fashionable. He helped start the player’s union by threatening to boycott the All-Star game and then stood by Muhammad Ali at that famous press conference in 1967 to protest the war in Viet Nam.
All of these memories came flooding back to me last week with the passing of Hank Aaron. If there was a Mt. Rushmore of sports heroes to admire, “Hammerin’ Hank” would certainly be included. Born the same year as Russell in segregated Alabama during the great depression, the family (including seven siblings) didn’t have things like baseball gloves & bats and Aaron’s High School didn’t even have organized baseball. In today’s world of travel teams and personal coaches, can you even imagine the world he lived in?
If his baseball career didn’t make him enough of a hero, think about his life after baseball. Especially when he showed so much class in congratulating Barry Bonds and then going back to quietly putting his focus almost entirely on philanthropic efforts.
Your humble scribe won’t attempt to duplicate all the beautiful remembrances of his life, but maybe we can read the backs of some baseball cards from his 23-year career.
- 1954 (Rookie Card) – “Henry, in pro ball only two years, came up to the Braves after a sensational ’53 season at Jacksonville, where he won the Sally League’s MVP Award. He led the loop in six departments: Batting, RBI’s, Hits, Runs, Total Bases and Doubles. At Eau Claire in ’52, he hit .336 and was voted ROY in the Northern League.”
- 1957 – “Hammerin’ Hank was the top batter in the NL in ’56. He won the hitting crown by jumping into the league lead in July and staying there for the last two months. During one week early in the season, Hank got red hot and skyrocketed his average 42 points! A real speedster, he led the league in Hits, Doubles and finished 3rd in Slugging.”
- 1958 – “Hank was voted the NL MVP last year. And no wonder – he led the loop in HR’s, RBI’s and Runs scored. Hank’s performance was a big factor in the Braves championship drive”.
- 1960 – “Hank won his 2nd NL Batting Crown last season with a hot .355. His 39 Homers were below his high mark of 44 that he clubbed in ’57. Hank has a .385 mark for 5 All-Star Games and hit .363 in two World Series.”
- 1962 – “The star outfielder of the Milwaukee Braves has won two NL Batting titles since joining the club in 1954. Hank’s best season was in 1959 when batted .355 and clubbed in 123 RBI’s. Loaded with plenty of power, Hank led the NL with 44 HR’s in 1957.”
- 1967 – “When one speaks of superstars, Hank’s name is always mentioned. The fabulous veteran reached a milestone in his career on April 20, 1966 when he cracked out his 399th & 400th major league home runs against the Phillies.”
- 1968 – “The veteran slugging star continued his annual torrid hitting last season as he led the Braves in Batting, RBI’s, HR’s & Doubles. Hank’s 17 Stolen Bases topped Atlanta too.”
- 1971 – “Hank has led the NL in Total Bases 8 times, had 300 or more Total Bases 14 times, 100 or more Runs 15 times & 150 or more games 14 times, all major league records. Tied Babe Ruth with 16th straight 20-HR year in 1970
“Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.” – Joe Adcock