Racial slur aimed at Hank Aaron hits too close to home for his biggest fan
Updated: Feb 13, 2021
THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER of 1973 and spring of 1974, I was a baseball-loving, 9-going-on-10-year-old who embraced Hank Aaron, the great Atlanta Braves star closing in on Babe Ruth's home run record.
I was still loyal to my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. But in the excitement of the home run chase (and with apologies to Willie Stargell and Dave Parker), no player meant more to me than Aaron.
His posters covered my bedroom wall. In this pre-Internet, pre-cable era, a daily ritual was checking the box scores each day in The Pittsburgh Press to see if Hammerin' Hank had gone deep. I watched what few Braves games that were televised on the Game of the Week or Monday Night Baseball.
What I was not aware of at the time, perhaps because I hadn't yet matured beyond my comic book collection into a voracious newspaper reader, was the ugly side of the home run chase -- the hate mail, death threats and outrage spewed at Aaron for being a Black man trying to topple a white baseball icon.
It didn't take long for that ugly side to find me.
It found me at home.
All it took was a visit from my grandmother.
I'll always remember my grandmother as sweet and loving and kind, and her visits from her home in Florida were always occasions of eagerly-anticipated joy for my brothers and sisters and I.
But on a summer afternoon, not long after Aaron hit his record-setting 715th home run, another side of her emerged as we sat together on the front porch. She was patiently indulging me, as grandmothers do, as I showed off my collection of favorite baseball cards.
"And here's my favorite player!" I said, handing her my treasured Hank Aaron baseball card.
I remember her smiling politely as she replied in an unmistakable tone of disappointment, "Ah, does it have to be a n-----?"
I recoiled and fell silent, buckling in the shock that not only had my sweet grandmother used the 'N' word but that she'd fired it at my favorite player!
It almost felt like she'd fired it at me.
After a long uncomfortable moment, I offered a reply defending my idol. The reply didn't mention anything about race. Instead, I pelted my grandmother with his statistics (which I'd memorized) and accomplishments and accolades and how no one hits home runs like Hank Aaron and I hope I meet him some day.
I can't recall if her visit was before or after the All Star game, which was held in Pittsburgh that summer. But I am certain I would have bragged to her that I attended the big game and the only reason I went was so I could see the my favorite player on the field in my hometown.
My grandmother died in 2001 at the age of 90. Just about all of my memories of her are happy ones. But the shock of hearing her lob a racial slur at my favorite player that day in 1974 always stuck with me like an ugly scar.
As I write this, I still want to defend her and dismiss the slur as an isolated slip resulting from decades of generational ignorance. I only heard her use the word that one time. But I also wonder how often she used it when I wasn't around. That she may have actually harbored racist beliefs is too painful for me to reconcile or accept.
Her comment inspired me to expand my reading habits beyond comic books. As I grew up, I devoured as many Hank Aaron books as I could. I grew to appreciate and respect him even more for accomplishing what he did while enduring such hatred.
As The New York Times wrote in his obit, Aaron grew up in Alabama amid rigid segregation and its humiliations, and he faced abuse from the stands while playing in the South as a minor leaguer. Years later, he felt that Braves fans were largely indifferent or hostile to him as he chased Ruth’s record. And after Aaron had received so much hate mail in the years and months leading up April 8, 1974, the baseball commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, was not present when he hit his historic 715th home run.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,'' Aaron told columnist William C. Rhoden in the early 1990s as the 20th anniversary of his home run feat approached. "My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
I earned a journalism degree, left Pittsburgh in 1988 and moved to Florida to work as a newspaper reporter. Eventually, I settled in West Palm Beach, which happened to be home to Hammerin' Hank Aaron.
Aaron, who spent so many spring trainings as a player at old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, bought a house not far from the ballpark. The old stadium was razed after the Braves moved their spring camp to Orlando in 1998.
A Home Depot rose in the ballpark's footprint. But Hank Aaron Drive is still there, in honor of the local Baseball Hall of Famer who stayed active in West Palm Beach civic events.
Our paths finally crossed in January 2009, thanks to the first Black president of the United States.
Aaron graciously sat down with me for an interview about the role he and other Black athletes played in pioneering a path that helped put Barack Obama in the White House.
"I never thought this day would happen. It's hard for me to tell you,'' he told me as we sat in the lobby of the Norton Museum, where he had just given a speech to local educators. "I am just overwhelmed. Every time I see him on television I just smile because he represents me. No matter how I look at it, he's me.''
In my story, published on Inauguration Day and picked up by newspapers across the United States and Canada, Aaron recalled how he sobbed tears of joy on Election Night.
He also said he received tickets to Obama's inauguration ceremony, but since he'd already met Obama and had also shaken hands with so many presidents during his playing days, he gave the tickets to his grandkids.
That was the only time I spoke to Aaron.
Recently, I've wondered what he thought of the divisiveness that has rocked our country over the last four years.
I'd like to think he enjoyed some measure of peace earlier this month, in the twilight of his remarkable life, when a Black woman was sworn in as vice president.