Hank Aaron – Composure
“What you do with your life and how you do it is not only a reflection on you, but on your family and all of those institutions that have helped to make you who you are.”
Imagine it’s April 8, 1974, and you’re watching a baseball game as history unfolds. You hear the familiar voice of Milo Hamilton, a sportscaster since the 1950s, call the play-by-play. “Now here is Hank Aaron. The crowd is up all around. The pitch to him…bounced it up there, ball one. He’s sitting on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing…Swinging…There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonnabeee…outa here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time! And it’s Hank Aaron! The fireworks are going! Aaron is coming around third! His teammates are at home plate. Listen to this crowd…”
Now picture a small, but vocal minority of Americans, vehemently rooting against Hank Aaron to break this career home run record. There was still a strong racist component in much of America at that time. Hank was born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. This was the Deep South and at that time the so-called Jim Crow Laws severely limited the social and economic mobility of African Americans.
Therefore, when his time came, Hank Aaron began his professional career in the Negro Leagues. Thanks to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), seven years previously, Aaron was able to sign his first MLB contract in 1954. Aaron would play for the next 20 years, most of it with the Braves organization. In that time he amassed 3,771 hits (the 5th most of all-time), 2,297 runs batted in (1st) and 1,477 extra-base hits (1st). He became an American icon. Yet, some didn’t want him to break Babe Ruth’s record of 715 career home runs.
If baseball and apple pie are icons of Americana then Babe Ruth was its ambassador. Ruth retired from baseball in 1935 and died about a decade later. He went on to be romanticized and elevated to iconic status. For almost 40 years, Ruth held the record for the most career home runs with 714. This record was long thought to be untouchable. Biographer Tom Stanton summed it up when he said, “Babe Ruth did not invent the home run. It just seemed as if he had.” As Aaron approached Ruth’s historic record in 1973 and 1974, American society got a good look at how far race relations still needed to progress.
Aaron began receiving anonymous death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s record. In total, he received over 100,000 pieces of hate mail. His wife and all four of his children were targeted as well. There were specific threats naming the town, specifying the inning, and describing the bullet that had Hank’s name on it. Some threats called particular attention to a certain home run, saying “Number 712 or 713 will be your last.” Years later, Aaron explained the situation this way, “I had many, many, many death threats. I couldn’t open letters for a long time, because they all had to be opened by either the FBI or somebody.”
Aaron and his teammates could often hear people yelling racial slurs from the bleachers. For road games he set up decoy rooms at hotels so he could sleep safely. He even hired a bodyguard to shadow him everywhere he went. After falling one home run short of Babe Ruth’s record at the end of the 1973 season, Aaron began to wonder if he would live long enough to break the record. He would have to endure more threats during the months between seasons and wait for the 1974 season. He understood that people loved Babe Ruth and held nostalgia for that era of baseball. However, Aaron took his job seriously and intended to perform to the best of his ability. He said, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember Hank Aaron.”
Throughout this chase, Aaron showed tremendous composure, which can best be defined as handling yourself with calmness in a stressful situation. Hank’s mind may have been distracted by all the hatred that was happening behind the scenes, but his focus at home plate was impenetrable. “What was always so impressive to me was how he kept focused on what he was doing out in the field, but when he was off the field he had this sense of purpose,” recalled news anchor Tom Brokaw. “He was just determined, without making a big deal about it, without any fuss, without any whining, without any complaining, without any arrogance.”
Aaron approached baseball as he did life saying, “In playing ball, and in life, a person occasionally gets the opportunity to do something great. When that time comes, only two things matter: being prepared to seize the moment and having the courage to take your best swing.” His success didn’t just come from how well he played the game. It also came from the poise and grace that he showed throughout his career. Being one of the first Black baseball players to break the color lines was a lot to place on one man’s shoulders. For example, early in his career he was often refused service at restaurants and hotels when traveling in the South. The man who was leading his team in hits and home runs would frequently have to make his own hotel accommodations because he was not allowed to stay at the team hotel. As wrong as this was, Aaron kept pushing forward, saying,
“There’s only one way to break the color line. Be good. I mean, play good. Play so good that they can’t remember what color you were before the season started.”
As a young boy, future actor Denzel Washington was a fan of Hank Aaron. Like most fans, he had no idea what Aaron was going through. “He didn’t complain about it, didn’t make noise about it. The average citizen didn’t know,” said Washington. “To keep getting up there, to keep swinging…and then to knock the ball out of the park! I can only imagine what pressure that must have been.” Aaron’s control of emotion and his consistent disposition were nurtured by his caring parents and reinforced by his time as a boy scout.
Aaron conveyed those lessons to the American people as he delivered history and home run number 715 with the utmost composure and respect at the plate. “I never doubted my ability, but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it,” said Aaron.
We see displays of arrogance in professional sports time and again, but even as Hank Aaron broke a record that stood for nearly 40 years, he remembered how he was raised. “You could tell his parents raised him to be a decent guy. He could hit the ball, but that didn’t make him an egotistical nut,” said Washington. “His brilliance is his steadiness, his consistency even under tremendous pressure.” Composure.
When his career ended, Hank Aaron had hit 755 balls over the fences. This would be the record for decades until Barry Bonds hit number 756 in 2007.
“Am I a hero? I suppose I am, to some people,” said the long-retired Aaron. “If I am, I hope it’s not only for my home runs, for my physical accomplishments on the baseball field. I hope it’s also for my beliefs, my stands, my opinions. Heroes, I feel, should be people you see on an everyday basis. Your parents. Your teachers. I was a boy scout when I was a child, and in a way, I’ve always tried to live by the boy scout motto — trying to be kind, loyal, brave, clean, obedient, all those simple virtues.”
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Hank Aaron is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school:
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