Hank Aaron made me a better human being.
Watching him go through his home run chase in 1973, and having the excitement of witnessing history soon after, is one of the best parts of my life. Then there are the other parts, the haters. When Mr. Aaron shared his mail with the world, it was as chilling as the penmanship. The death threats he received made me confused. Why would anyone want to hurt a great baseball player? A baseball player who was about to do something great!
The “N” word was flooded in these letters, and the meaning of prejudice was loud and clear. Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lots of my neighbors had a darker skin tone than mine. Those neighbors were my playmates, my brothers, my protectors all the way to the term of my homies.
Ballplayers like Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, John Milner, and Horace Clarke were my baseball card heroes. I viewed them as ballplayers, not blacks. They were all my real life supermen. They all guided me on the streets where we played stickball, as I imitated their stances.
With Aaron’s passing this week, and the replays of the hate he went through back then, I shed a tear at the state of the world. At the same time, I form a smile at the person I turned out to become.
A few years ago, I was at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., with my younger brother Steve. I had him pose next to a mural of my home run King. Steve asked me if I ever saw Aaron play. I laughed, and then answered, it’s cause of Hank Aaron that I view a black man and a white man as a human being!
Thank you Henry Louis Aaron for your dignity and cool demeanor. You made all of us aspiring ballplayers from St. Nicolas Avenue, want to be like you.