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June 24, 2019
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I Think My Paternal Grandfather is the Greatest Home Run Hitter of All Time

Jun 13 2018

44 years ago, I experienced the best evening of television of my life. My parents let me stay up past my usual bed time because the Atlanta Braves were hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the game was to be broadcast live. I grew up in Vermont, if not the heart of Red Sox nation, certainly in the neighborhood. The Braves, my favorite team, were never on the three TV stations available to us at the time, but that night they were on in prime time because Henry Louis Aaron, my childhood hero, was one home run away from passing the legendary Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record in major league baseball. And that night in early April he did just that. It was the best night of TV ever.

Last night was perhaps the next greatest night of television I’ve ever experienced. While my wife and daughter watched reruns of Gilmore Girls in the living room, I was in the bedroom watching the Atlanta Braves on ESPN. Not only that, but Hank Aaron joined the broadcasters in the booth for over an hour of the game. While ESPN continued to show the live game on split screen, the other side of the screen showed Hammering Hank and the four broadcasters casually chatting. I felt like I was listening in on a grandfather discussing the old days over a beer with some buddies.

It seems it was “Hank Aaron Tribute Night” on ESPN, so the conversation in the broadcast booth was embellished with video tributes from Willie Mays, and, even more meaningful to me as a lifelong Braves fan, from Aaron’s former teammates Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr. Garr, always the clown, was entertaining and comical in his tribute, which anyone who was an Atlanta fan in the 1970s would have fully expected.

But perhaps the most special part of the broadcast was when Chicago Cubs great Billy Williams called in, and he and Hank talked about growing up in Mobile, Alabama. Williams is a bit younger than Aaron, and was friends with Hank’s younger brother, also a former major leaguer, Tommie Aaron. He talked about the old ballfield where they all played (along with other Mobilites such as Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Amos Otis). The same ballfield Hank would return to after his rookie season to tell Billy, Tommie, Amos and the other young kids about life in the big leagues.

The tone of the entire evening was one of the utmost respect for Hank Aaron, and why wouldn’t it be. I am so grateful for a childhood hero who handled himself with so much dignity, humility and professionalism. He was asked about the end of the 1973 season, when he was one home run away from tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record. Since he would then have to wait through the whole off season, how did he possibly handle such stress for that long? He replied that that was the winter he married the love of his life and the most beautiful woman in the world. He and his wife Billye have now been married 44 years.

And it was this type of down to earth conversation that made me feel like I was listening to grandpa telling tales – sometimes heartwarming, sometimes humorous- with other old-timers. Twice Hank referenced how God has blessed him. I had already known Hank was, toward the end of his career, a regular at baseball chapel services, and since retiring he has become a practicing Catholic.

At one point, he credited his legendary strong, quick wrists to how his dad made him use tongs to carry huge blocks of ice up three flights of stairs during his childhood. He spoke highly of his friendships not only with greats like Eddie Mathews and Stan Musial, but with teammates who never made the majors, but whom he played with in his Negro League and minor league days. (On a similar note, I had a friendship with former major leaguer Bernie Carbo for a hot second, and he told me about briefly being Hank’s teammate in Milwaukee. Years later they saw each other at an old-timers event, and Bernie was surprised that Hank not only remembered him, but was sincerely happy to see him again.)

Henry also spoke of the hate mail and death threats he received as a black man who was not only playing baseball in the deep south, but was on the verge of breaking the most revered sports record by the most beloved athlete America ever knew. He talked about how he couldn’t enjoy the record chase because of the pressure. He had to secretly leave the stadium after games and meet up with his team later on. He referred to his famous quote, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth; I just want them to remember Hank Aaron.” And, to his credit, when one of the sportscasters referred to Hank as ‘second on the all-time home run list’, there was no retort regarding Barry Bonds’ need to use illegal PIDs in order to pass Hank’s career total of 755 in 2007. Aaron not only set the record honestly and legally, he apparently has internalized the saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say nothing at all.”

The casual humility, warmth, and humor of Mr. Aaron was truly like listening to the grandfather I never knew.

And perhaps that’s who he is.

Sure, it’s unlikely, since my dad is the son of Swedish immigrants and Hank Aaron is a black man. My dad grew up in New Jersey and Henry Aaron is from Alabama. Perhaps the biggest evidence that Hank might not be my paternal grandfather is that he is 16 years younger than my father would be if he were alive today.

Still, I wonder.

You see, back in the 1970’s when I was writing fan mail and imitating the swing of “the Hammer”, another hero was quietly modeling the same humility, work ethic, courage and love of family every day of my life. Sure, Roy Hagerstrom didn’t deal with hate mail or racism, but, like anyone who lived through the Depression and served in WWII, he faced huge challenges of his own. And he faced them courageously.

Noticing what Hank DIDN’T say about Barry Bonds reminded me of what my father wouldn’t say about the homosexual couple who lived across the street from us for many years. I heard the jokes from both kids and adults in our little suburban neighborhood, but never did I hear them from my dad. “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say nothing at all.”

Furthermore, listening to Hammering Hank talk about his wife was like listening to my dad speaking of my mom. She died 24 years before he did, and he continued to adore her every day of those 24 lonely years. To my dad, Mom was always “the love of his life and the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Last night, Hank was quick to laugh while speaking with his friend, Billy Williams; and didn’t my father like to laugh when a neighborhood friend named Pat Cleary (“he’s a real Irishman, that's for sure”, my dad would say) stopped in for a beer and a talk.
It is because of these clear similarities that I wonder if Hank Aaron might have raised my father. I suppose deep down I realize that, even if I disregarded the impossible math involved, a quick test by would show there’s no shared DNA between Hank Aaron and Roy Hagerstrom. Yet both of these very different yet very similar men had huge impacts on a skinny little kid growing up in Vermont in the 1970’s. For that I am forever grateful.

By the way, the Braves beat the Mets last night, 8-2. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

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