My tribute to the courage and greatness of Hank Aaron
Still remember where I was when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – To this day, and nearly 47 years later, I still remember exactly where I was when Hank Aaron set the all-time Major League home run record on April 8, 1974.
I was plopped in front of the television in my family’s home in Des Moines and savoring the moment with my parents.
Only 10 years old at the time, I wasn’t really aware of the racial unrest that had persisted throughout Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s legendary record.
I just knew that I was watching history unfold and I didn’t care that Aaron was breaking a record set by a white sports legend. I didn’t care because my parents didn’t care.
We were just excited to see the record get broken, and to see it broken by a proud and esteemed black man whose talent was matched by his courage, resolve and endurance.
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, who passed away on Friday at the age of 86, stood for so much more than baseball and home runs.
I remember my father using this occasion to talk to me about racism and about how Aaron had been treated.
Because of my age, my father didn’t go into specific details and tell me about the awful letters and death threats that Aaron received while pursuing Ruth’s home run record.
Instead, my father said there were some people who were upset that Aaron had eclipsed Ruth’s home run record due simply to the color of Aaron’s skin.
They didn’t want Aaron to have the record for no other reason than he was black.
My father said it was wrong to feel that way, and I remember him on that day just moments after Aaron had set the record, reinforcing that belief.
I was fortunate to have parents who were disgusted by racism, and who truly did judge people by their character rather than the color of their skin.
I remember my father talking about Hank Aaron’s tremendous strength, and his quick wrists and his hip movement, all of which made him the greatest home run hitter of all time.
But then a few years later, I had another conversation with my father about Hank Aaron. By then, I was in high school and had read about Aaron’s home run chase and what he had to endure.
It was sickening what Aaron had to go through, the death threats, the taunts and the abuse, all because of the color of his skin.
My father told me that day that if he had been born black, and with his pride, toughness and stubbornness, that he wouldn’t have made it to 20. My father said he would’ve been killed for refusing to accept the hate and humility from racial inequality.
He wasn’t bragging, but rather it was my father’s way of explaining how blacks were being treated.
It was my father’s way of praising Aaron for the dignity, grace and restraint that he displayed while the world around him boiled with hate and ridicule.
It was my father’s unique way of explaining the evils of racism, and his approach sent a strong message.
I now have a Hank Aaron print that hangs proudly on the wall in my bedroom, and a print of Muhammad Ali that hangs in my office.
They are two of my favorite athletes of all time, along with Walt Frazier and Gale Sayers.
But Aaron and Ali stood for so much more than just their sports glory.
They helped to shape a new America and stood up to the dangers of racism.
And while their approaches were different, both were effective in their own way.
Ali was brash and outspoken, while Aaron was calm and collected.
But what they had in common was immense courage and toughness.
They also had my father’s respect, and that had an influence on me.
In a perfect world, everyone would’ve rejoiced and celebrated Hank Aaron’s incredible accomplishment.
But sadly, the world was far from perfect in 1974, and Aaron suffered because of it.
But Aaron never succumbed to the hate and death threats. He stood brave and tall, and that’s what I’ll remember most about Hank Aaron.