“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.” – Henry “Hank” Aaron
Last week, Henry “Hank” Aaron transitioned to eternity. I saw this legendary icon, whom I knew since I was a teenager, as the model family man, who loved and protected his wife, family and friends.
He broke Babe Ruth’s record and established many other records also. Certainly, he was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Consider the hurdles that he had to overcome to make it to the Major League of Baseball in the Jim Crow era. Consider also that his accomplishments came at a time when “sports medicine” and “sports psychology” were not specialties.
Further consider that Babe Ruth’s record was broken by a man, who used an old fashioned wood, not specially engineered, baseball bat. Can you imagine what statistics would be attached to his name if a man of his natural ability played with today’s sports-specific nutrition, psychological therapy, massage/recovery therapy, specialist coaching and technologically advanced equipment?
His long career in baseball epitomized excellence. He epitomized excellence. This baseball Hall of Famer retired with his reputation intact – no blemish, no whiff of scandal. In the Jim Crow era, and since, he and his family endured and overcame death threats. As he admonished, he was prepared and he had the courage to take his best swing.
Mr. Aaron, upon his retirement, continued to break records, establish “firsts” and epitomize excellence. He became a very successful businessman (in many arenas); served on and advised boards of Fortune 500 companies; became an executive with the Atlanta Braves; established with Mrs. Billye Aaron (his beloved wife) the Chasing the Dream Foundation (to help young people achieve their dreams); assisted Mrs. Aaron when she founded and chaired the annual Mayor’s Masked Ball in Atlanta to raise money for the United Negro College Fund (“UNCF”) (it is said that the Aarons have raised more money for UNCF than any other couple); donated the money to Morehouse School of Medicine to construct the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion and received the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Although Mr. Aaron suffered much indignity and abuse as a Black man, and death threats against himself and his family when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, he was very much like Nelson Mandela, whom he knew well, in that he did not allow bitterness or hatred to consume him. He stayed focused on creating opportunities to showcase and encourage Black excellence and give young people the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and always conducted himself in a manner that demonstrated our common humanity.
Mr. and Mrs. Aaron are “Georgia royalty”. He was always accessible and approachable. In conversation, Mr. Aaron always listened attentively, asked lots of questions and made you feel like you were the only person in the room.
I shall never forget Mr. Aaron’s 75th birthday party in Atlanta. President Clinton was in attendance. President Clinton spoke of Mr. Aaron as a personal advisor. He said that but for Mr. Aaron, he would not have won Georgia. The endorsement of the legendary Henry “Hank” Aaron was accepted by white and Black people in Georgia. He said that Mr. Aaron was responsible for him being the president. I felt so proud to hear the president of the United States of America praise in this way and acknowledge the power and influence of Mr. Aaron, a Black man.
Mr. Aaron’s life is a powerful story of overcoming. He was born in Alabama, a state acknowledged to be one of the cruelest during slavery and since. In the Jim Crow south, he experienced this cruelty and hatred. He did not allow this powerful force to crush him. Rather, as well as being a sports legend, he was so iconic that the president of the United States said that Mr. Aaron had the power and influence to cause him to be elected as president of the United States!
At the side of every successful man is an amazing woman. At Mr. Aaron’s side was the stunning, elegant, gracious, eloquent, accomplished and visionary Mrs. Billye Aaron – a driving force in her own right.
At Mrs. Aaron’s 80th birthday party in Atlanta, she celebrated her love of the Caribbean by giving the party a Caribbean theme. In the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, a seat of the Confederacy, this powerful and influential Black couple, celebrated with their family and friends, the importance of the Black family, of spouses supporting each other, of celebrating important moments with family and friends and always remembering that there are many more to be helped and much work to be done. Mrs. Aaron asked that in lieu of gifts, donations be given to the UNCF.
The soft spoken family man who loved family and friends and enjoyed quietly helping others, while he understood that he was a world iconic legend, is the man whom I remember.
He and Mrs. Aaron adored each other. While Mr. Aaron’s loss is great to America and all in the African diaspora, it is an unimaginable loss for Mrs. Aaron and his family. As I, like many others, treasure my memories of Mr. Aaron, a world class gentleman, model of excellence and role model, I hold Mrs. Aaron and his family in my prayers.
Dare I ask, in Henry Aaron style, that we who treasure his memory ensure that we live lives worthy of emulation and give all that we can to further the cause of ensuring that every child has the opportunity to get a good education?
Mr. Aaron is quoted as saying, “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Rest in peace, legendary icon Henry Aaron. Your “swing” shall forever be remembered.
— Allyson Maynard-Gibson