Getting Philosophical About Hank

Hank_aaron I dug this photo out recently. 

My teen aged niece, seeing it for the first time stared incredulously at my brother’s (her father’s) jeans in the photo.  She was aghast at the deplorable (in her opinion) color.  "FUSCHIA?!" she exclaimed in horror, teasing him mercilessly.

She was so busy assessing my brother’s fashion faux pas, that she failed to recognize the gentleman standing in between her youthful father and aunt. 

But on a summer day in the early ’70s, I was sitting in the back seat with my brother, as my father drove and my mother navigated on one of our summer vacations–this one to the West Coast and, on this particular day, in San Francisco–and my brother noticed this gentleman.

At a recent family gathering, my brother recalled the specific circumstances.  He remembered glancing out the car window and remarking rather nonchalantly,

"Hey, that guy looks like HANK AARON!"

He then recalled that my mother–a baseball fan since childhood and a Braves fan in particular–snapped her arms straight out at her sides, simultaneously barking an order to my father to "Stop the car!"

Looking back on it, my brother said, she would have known that the Braves were in town to play the Giants. 

Turns out my brother’s assumption that he’d seen someone with a remarkable resemblance to Hank Aaron was incorrect:  he’d seen one and the same!

I don’t remember how my father managed to find a parking place on the streets of San Francisco (nor how he managed to park our car what with the challenges of the steep inclines and the fact that my mother and brother were probably driving him nuts in their excitement to get parked and return to where they had seen Aaron).  However, when we returned to the spot where Aaron had been standing, he was still there, standing in front of what was apparently the hotel where he and his team were staying.

I remember my father politely asking "Mr. Aaron" if he would mind if he took a picture of him with my brother and me and, obviously, Hank Aaron obliging. 

In that very brief encounter, I do remember getting a sense of the "quiet dignity" that is so commonly used to describe his personae–especially in so many recent articles about his approaching Babe Ruth’s record as Barry Bonds has now been approaching Aaron’s record.

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There have been so many articles written about Bonds and this record.  I’ve read some.  I have little more to contribute personally.  However, I would like to direct others’ attention to a couple of voices out there–one in radio and one in print–who gave me something to think about regarding this subject in the past 24 hours that I had not thought about in quite that way before.

1.  WFAN’s Steve Somers is a personal favorite radio personality of mine.  While his monologues tend to be a bit long-winded (and some might say "overblown"), I like his insights and the dramatic ups and downs of his voice. 

Driving up to Connecticut yesterday morning, I was listening to his show, the opening of which you can hear here.  (You will need to either forward through about the first quarter of the file or listen through wrap-ups of the previous day’s Yankees and Mets games before you get to his Aaron/Bonds spiel.)

If you don’t have the time or patience or just don’t appreciate Steve Somers the way I do, I’ll just extract what it is that he said that made an impression on me:  he said that the ugliness of the racist taunts and letters that Aaron bore the brunt of during his chase of Ruth’s record "cheated" Aaron of the enjoyment of the pursuit of the record.  And now, Somers says, a cheater is cheating Aaron out of the enjoyment of passing the record along to a worthy heir apparent. 

Somers states that Aaron has been "cheated" not once but twice.

2. In the article "Two Players, but Only One True King", New York Times writer Selena Roberts’ take, while certainly not exonerating Bonds at all, ends with the thought that perhaps Bonds’ achievement says something about us as a society at large, specifically about our expectations of our own bodies and those of our athletes.

Only a week or so ago, the Times ran a cover story on the disturbing prevalence of surgeons being approached by high school athletes requesting Tommy John surgery EVEN WHEN THEY WERE NOT INJURED because they (or their coaches or parents) were under the (mistaken) impression that the end result would be that they would be faster pitchers!

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But back to the picture at the top of the page.

I saw the excitement in my brother’s face when he met Hank Aaron.  And in my Mom’s face too.  Me?  I wasn’t a baseball fan at the time.

But looking back at it now, how difficult must it have been for my parents to tell my brother and me about all the ugliness that Aaron endured during his career?  I never grew up around that sort of prejudice.  I’m sure when I was told about the letters he had received, the death threats, the extra security that had to be arranged, I’m sure that I couldn’t believe it. 

And that made him even MORE of a hero in my and everyone else’s eyes.

T012061a My husband and I recently had to explain this same unbelievably ugly side of humanity to our own daughter as we discussed Aaron’s record.  We also discussed the ugly racism and even more punishing obstacles put in the path of Jackie Robinson as a part of sharing the absolutely terrific "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush"–airing regularly on HBO through Septemberwith her.

But as I was watching that show, I was thinking about the children back then, hearing jeers at Jackie Robinson but ultimately seeing him stay on to play on the team, to be a success, and to ultimately make a mockery of those who had mocked him.

Children today are seeing people in ballparks holding signs with asterisks on them, people dressed up like syringes, yelling about "steroids"–a term most kids probably don’t even know.  Will history make Barry Bonds a hero and those who taunted him look like the idiots? 

I doubt it.

In this case, it isn’t going to be a case of the "hero" eventually conquering the "ugliness" that is set in his path.  It’s just going to be a quasi-hero at best or an anti-hero at worst.  Perhaps some will try to paint the steroid issue as a smear campaign of "ugliness" to detract from Barry’s success, but I don’t think many will buy that. 

Maybe A-Rod will pass the record soon and this will be just a short chapter in the history books, who knows.

No doubt the new homerun record will eventually be surpassed.  And, just as predictably, there will still be things about human society that parents will not like to have to admit to themselves nor to have to explain to their children.

But, hopefully, there will still be those heroes who succeed in spite of the prejudices of others, and, hopefully, there will still be true heroes who rely on their true inner and physical strengths for whom honor and awards can be bestowed with no reservations, disgruntlement, questions, or asterisks.

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