His Hat Stayed On: To the Great But Under-Appreciated Hank Aaron, on His Birthday

As major league teams start reporting to training camp this week, The Stream pays tribute to one of the legends of the game.

Hank Aaron at his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

By David Mills Published on February 13, 2020

Hank Aaron was my favorite baseball player — which was was unusual when you live in Massachusetts and cheer for the Red Sox. He played in the other league for the Atlanta Braves, but he had my little boy’s heart.

As a very young reader of sports magazines, nine or ten, I read an interview with him and saw he had what we called “class”: grace, dignity, self-possession, confidence, generosity, gravitas, not that I could describe it at the time. He instantly became my favorite player.

Hank Aaron celebrated his 85th birthday last Wednesday. Which I missed, to my shame. A week late, here’s a tribute.

His Hat Stayed On

A little later than the first interview I read another in which (as I remember it) a sportswriter asked him why he wasn’t as popular as Willie Mays. He said, “My cap stays on,” or maybe “His cap flies off.” He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and he knew it, but he also knew he did his job, and did it exceptionally well.

I liked (as I’d put it now) his dry insight into fame, which was an enduring lesson to me. I appreciated his matter-of-fact valuation of his own gifts. He knew he was good, and he didn’t lie about that, and he didn’t brag. He was a class act. I loved the man whose cap stayed on.

Public heroes often disappoint us. Their heroism comes from skillful p.r. working on a public that wants heroes. By all reports, Hank Aaron was and is the real thing. Here he is, being interviewed some years after he retired. It gives some idea of his character. He’s just shared the advice Jackie Robinson gave him, that the most important thing was what a player did after he retired.

“I was blessed enough to play the game for 23 years,” Aaron said. “But the most important thing is what I can do for others, once my career is over with. I was blessed because the good Lord gave me the ability to play this game. But by the same token, I have to be blessed enough to understand I have to help others.” In the same interview, he said humbly that he couldn’t do what Jackie Robinson had done.  

Always Undervalued

He was always undervalued. That infuriated me. No matter how good a year he had, the sports writers always featured other players, often this year’s sensation who returned to mediocrity the next year. His excellence year after year didn’t seem to count for much.

That is, until he started getting closer to Babe Ruth’s home run record. Suddenly people were saying, “Hey, wait, Aaron’s getting that close to the record? How’d that happen?” And then he passed Ruth. I felt vindicated. 

As he got closer to the record, he famously endured death threats from hundreds if not thousands of racist dirtbags. But that wasn’t all that different from the abuse he’d gotten most of his playing life.

Aaron entered the majors only six years after Jackie Robinson did, and he had to do something close to what Robinson had done. When he played in the minors, the bus would drop the white players at the team motel and then take Aaron and two teammates to a motel in “colored town.” When he first joined the Braves’ spring training, the clubhouse manager nicknamed him “Stepin Fetchit.”

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When the team moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, with Aaron already a MVP and a superstar, fans still yelled racist abuse from the stands. That he was black mattered more than that their team had one of the best players in the history of baseball.

Now, Respect

Now the world respects him more. He entered the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible, with all but nine voters voting him in. (Whatever else we know about the world, we know it includes nine imbeciles.) Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron award, given to the year’s best hitter. Many felt indignant when Barry Bonds of dubious reputation passed his home run record. Someone on a major sports site always writes about him on his birthday.

But even baseball fans have short memories and he retired 43 years ago. I suspect his name doesn’t mean much even to fans under, say, 50. Sad. Their loss.

Because there is much to remember. The main speaker at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his breaking Babe Ruth’s record said: “All of us honor him tonight not only for the power of his swing but for the power of his spirit; not only for breaking records but for breaking barriers; not only for chasing his dream but even for giving children, like those we saw tonight, the chance to chase theirs.”

The tribute continued, looking back at his life: “From Mobile to Milwaukee to Atlanta, through a segregated South in the old Sally League where he was the only member of the team that didn’t stay in the same motel, the only one who couldn’t get served at the dinner counter, he moved through a changing America. And he changed the mind and heart of America.”

He did mine, in a way. Hank Aaron gave me an ideal for living: To be a man whose hat stays on. Happy birthday, Mr. Aaron. And thank you.

 

My thanks to my colleagues Austin Roscoe and Aliya Kuykendall for correcting my over-clever opening.

 

David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes the monthly “Last Things” column for the New Oxford Review. He is finishing a book on death and dying to be published by Sophia Institute Press.

The photo of the young Aaron appeared in Baseball Digest and is used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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