David Ralston, Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, took a break from a legislative agenda aimed at voter suppression after a majority in the state cast votes in the two most recent elections that were unpleasing to him and his Republican colleagues.
Yet, without a hint of irony, the state legislature gave appropriate time last week to memorializing baseball great, civil rights advocate and longtime Atlanta resident, “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, who died January 22.
In his comments, Ralston praised Aaron’s accomplishments and added that when he watched Aaron play, he “didn’t see a Black man,” he “saw a ballplayer.”
Like me, Ralston is a 60-something white man from the hills of North Georgia. I believe his intentions were good when speaking narrowly of Aaron’s legacy.
Yet, to my ears, his comment had a sense of accepting Aaron despite his race because of the accomplishments and positive attention he brought to “our state” and “our team.” Indeed, the Hammer’s talents were a marvel to watch on public display.
However, Hank Aaron was unmistakably a Black man. And that was a big part of his life and story.
From childhood, I recall family members with strong racist attitudes and common use of racist language delighting in the singing of Sammy Davis Jr. on his TV variety show, and the lone African American Arthur Duncan’s tap-dancing on The Lawrence Welk Show.
But had Sammy, Arthur or Hank sought the same jobs for the same pay at my relatives’ workplaces, they would not have received such acceptance, admiration or applause.
By the time Henry Louis Aaron — a son of the Deep South — moved reluctantly with the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, he was my hero. And even at age 10, I saw him as both a Black man and a remarkable ballplayer.
Rarely did he play before TV cameras in those years before cable television. Radio broadcasts of the games were the soundtrack of my youthful summers.
The pregame show’s nightly opening is seared in my brain: “This is Milo Hamilton along with Ernie Johnson, and Braves baseball is on the air. Brought to you by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola and by Union 76…”
I could not see him, and Milo and Ernie didn’t describe him as such, but I knew Hank was a Black man.
His graceful play in right field and effortless speed on the base paths were viewed only during the televised coverage of the annual All-Star Game — or on a rare Saturday when the Braves appeared on NBC Game of the Week, which preferred big-market teams for their broadcasts.
More rarely and appreciated were the times when my parents gave into constant pleas and took our family to Atlanta Stadium to watch from a perch so high that the pigeons looked up at us. But I kept a close eye on the tiny figure in right field with 44 on his back, and I knew that he was a most-gifted player and a Black man.
Aaron’s cardboard image from the back of a 1962 Post Cereal box was (and is) an early treasured possession. His was the most sought after among the more refined Topps Baseball Cards that came five to a pack with a stick of gum — all for a hard-earned dime.
If Hank didn’t appear quickly in my eager unwrapping of the few packs that I could afford each season, I’d gladly trade Yaz, Kaline and Banks for him with a schoolmate, even though I liked those guys too.
With his homerun totals mounting as I moved through high school, there was a growing sense that perhaps — just perhaps — the “unbreakable” record held by the legendary slugger Babe Ruth might actually be surpassed by our own Henry Aaron.
The Babe had cemented a monumental total of 714 career home runs, and he did so to the wild cheers of his adoring fans — and without having to face some of the greatest pitchers of his time who toiled in the Negro Leagues.
But Hank was the product of that segregated system and faced all the brutality of succeeding in a sport controlled by a white power structure and played out in an overtly racist society.
I knew Hank was a Black man, because I consumed the sports pages and read of the many threats on his life as well as the earlier discrimination. Not only did he face Bob Gibson’s headhunting fastball and Sandy Koufax’s confounding curve, but also the real possibility that he could be shot dead while simply playing the outfield.
More than a mere record — this was the baseball record that, if broken, would be a blow to the deep-rooted national fallacy of white supremacy. When the record finally fell, it was a huge relief to Hank and a joyous celebration for those of us who followed his pursuit of an impossible dream.
However, the great lie of white supremacy and its resulting racial injustice did not fall like the ball that contacted Hank’s powerful bat and sailed over the leftfield fence on April 8, 1974.
In efforts to deal with racism — either seriously by addressing ongoing systemic issues or dismissively as if it’s all in the past — it is not constructive to pretend we don’t see race. It is only in confronting racism with honesty, confession and reparation that we move ahead.
Hank Aaron’s heroism was not built upon a race-free foundation. He did not play on an even field.
His accomplishments and legacy were the results of being a disciplined and courageous Black man — and a most-talented athlete who rose to every occasion in ways that would have crushed most others.
Treating people equally doesn’t mean we ignore their distinctions, stories and individualized challenges.
Therefore, I recognize the racial and ethnic makeups of my friends (and even heroes from afar) — and seek to honor them not in spite of their race or other distinctions but because of what they bring from their unique personhoods to mine.
Only in acknowledging and appreciating how our differences contribute to the richness of our greater sameness can we truly celebrate having been delightfully and equally crafted by the God of love and grace.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.