Last night, I reminisced about Hank Aaron (1934-2021). My first baseball cards were from 1958. The Milwaukee Braves were my favorite team. In 1957, they won the first World Series I remember. Aaron was the league’s MVP, as he was in 1953, his last year in the minors. He dominated the South Atlantic League in its first year of racial integration, prompting a sportswriter to say, “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”
Aaron, Félix Mantilla and Horace Garner were the first black Jacksonville Braves. When I became a major league baseball fan, I didn’t realize racial integration was new to MLB. As a young adult, I was aware of racial tensions leading up to Aaron’s 715th home run on April 8, 1974. Some of my older white friends (including my parents’ pastor) didn’t want a n—– passing Babe Ruth’s career record of 714. He seemed bewildered that Aaron had been a childhood hero for me.
I’m thankful Hank Aaron lived long enough to know he was appreciated by almost everyone. I’m thankful I’ve lived long enough to recapture some childlike naïveté. The historical context of Aaron’s life isn’t the whole story, but it’s an important part of the story. The good news is that when barriers (racial or otherwise) fall, everyone receives the gift of liberation. That conversation with my parents’ pastor reminds me that all of us have gifts lying around, waiting to be opened.