[caption id="attachment_3757" align="alignright" width="400"]Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks[/caption] Henry - Hank - Aaron passed away last week at age 86. For ‘men of a certain age’ he is much more than the greatest homerun hitter of all time. He represents a dramatic shift in sports, society and every day American life. His record-setting home run, the one that eclipsed Babe Ruth’s “never-to-be-broken” 714, was a defining moment for me. My family had moved from Clarendon Hills, IL to Ottawa, IL 17 months prior to the night: April 8, 1974. I was a senior in high school, still getting to know the lay of the land in a new community. The game itself, where Henry drove a 1-0 fastball from the Los Angeles Dodger’s Al Downing into the left field seats at old Fulton County Stadium, was nationally broadcast on radio and television. This was pre-internet, pre-cable TV, a time when the only coast-to-coast, border-to-border TV broadcasts (“THE GAME OF THE WEEK”) happened on Saturdays in the spring and summer. But this game, this player, this moment, was so important it warranted nightly coverage for the Atlanta Braves and their superstar. My brothers and I watched the game and cheered when the ball cleared the playing field and Mr. Aaron rounded the bases. I remember the ballpark was sold out, and every single person in the stands was white. Significant. All white people in the Deep South cheering for a black man to break the record of a baseball legend. It was a different time, of course… baseball was still “king” as far as a spectator sport (though football was a very close second, soon to overtake the “national pastime” for the following five decades). I had seen Hank Aaron play at least twice at Wrigley Field, the home of my still-beloved Chicago Cubs. The memories are vivid, as clear-as-a-sunshiny-Chicago summer afternoon. During one of those games he hit two ground rule doubles in the same exact place (the ball skipped off the ground in right field and barely made it over the wall - there was no “basket” in those days as  there is today, just ivy up to the top where people would rest their food and beverages). He was one of the players who, for whatever reason, looked to me like a giant compared to everyone else on the field. The way he carried himself. The way he handled the bat between pitches. The way he looked running to catch a lazy fly ball or rounding first base, or just standing in right field. I was mesmerized.
There were others who had this effect on me - names from a long-forgotten past, people whose faces, whose baseball-card-player images are forever ingrained in my mind. My boyhood hero, Ernie Banks, and his teammates, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, forever dressed in their home white uniforms with the blue stripes and the red-white-and-blue “Cubs” insignia on the chest. Then there were the superstars from opposing teams who I dreaded each time they pitched or came to the plate to bat: Lou Brock, Sandy Koufax, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente. Aaron’s number, 44, still makes me think “Hank Aaron.” Doesn’t matter where I see it: college football uniform; the numbers on a street address; doing reps of sit-ups. The number comes up and my brain clicks: “44: Hank Aaron.” (there are other numbers that do the same thing for me: “14” - Ernie Banks; “51” - Dick Butkus; “40” - Gale Sayers; “24” - Michael Jordan; “12” - Tom Brady). Years later when my pregnant wife Marsia asked if we could name our first child after her father’s brother, a man who had fought and died at Anzio during WW II, I said, “Yes! Henry is a great name! We’ll call him Hank! Like Hank Aaron!” Two days after Aaron hit the home run, the world restarted. The planet creaked back into rotation after having stopped for some 48 hours (at least in my mind). As a big brother, I went to see my youngest sibling play a little league game. I was sitting at the top of the makeshift bleachers behind third base to cheer him on, and everyone was talking about Aaron. Reliving the home run. The record. The ONLY THING THAT MATTERED! Without editing for the time or place or possible repercussions, I said, “Henry Aaron is the greatest home run hitter of all time. There can’t be a question.” As I stood up and walked down the metal planks to get a better view of my kid brother at bat, a thirtyish man, my height and thin with a pock-marked ugly face walked up to me and sucker-punched me in the face. I had no idea who he was. There was a short fight - I grabbed his collar and pulled him close to my face. I was bigger. Stronger. I didn’t say anything. He put his hands up and I let him go. He slinked back to wherever he’d been watching the game, and when it ended he came over and apologized. Profusely. Then came the caveat. “Babe Ruth will always be the greatest home run hitter.” He used the N-word to describe Henry Aaron. It defined the moment, the times, the controversy, the society we lived in. Aaron is still an inspiration to me all these years since. You can have Sosa, McGwire and Bonds. They hit home runs. I acknowledge A-Rod and Pujols and Griffey Jr. and Thome, sure, home run hitters and great players all. Baseball has a new crop of superstars (as all sports do), and I have no issue with them setting records, winning games, earning accolades. But Henry Aaron is transcendent. He was getting death threats during his run for the record. His CHILDREN were getting death threats. His team, the Braves, moved from quiet, Midwestern Milwaukee to Atlanta in the first few years of his professional career - literally moving from a place where racism was clandestine to where racism was KLANdestine. He was a statesman. An ambassador. So, I’m saddened by his passing. And I am thrilled I got to see him. I am thankful for his inspiration. Al Downing was the pitcher. Years later he denied grooving a pitch to the greatest home run hitter of all time. Bill Buckner was playing left field for the Dodgers, and he went to the wall and watched the shot-heard-round-the-world fly over his head. That guy had the wildest baseball career ever: he watched that home run; he let a 14-hopper go through his legs in a World Series that allowed Mookie Wilson to score for the Mets as they beat the Bosox and later won the ’86 baseball world championship. And, of course, Billy Buck played for my ever-and-forever home team, The Chicago Cubs. I still remember how good it felt during the summer of 1969 as the Cubs ran out to a 10-game lead and my family went to a few games where third baseman Ron Santo would click his heels as he ran down the left field line after another win. It’s still very real to me now. I didn’t care where we sat: bleachers, grandstand, box seats, wherever. I wanted to see them: Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, Fergie Jenkns, and… ERNIE! I can taste the hot dogs. The coke. The ball looked like a white pellet flying from the pitcher’s mound to the plate. I can distinctly hear the way the crack of the bat reverberated throughout the ballpark. Henry Aaron passed away. But I can still see him leaving the on-deck circle and striding to the plate at Wrigley Field. He’s wearing the Braves travel inform with “ATLANTA” stitched in cursive writing across the chest, a blue and white batting helmet with the red “A” on the front tugged smartly down his head. I am dreading it and I am anticipating it, Henry Aaron at the plate. The knowledge that he could take any pitch “outta here” at any moment. And here’s the pitch, Aaron swings and….