Hank Aaron got another standing ovation yesterday. As usual, he didn’t make a big deal about it. He actually stood in line with everybody else, but as he neared the front, somebody recognized him and word that he’d arrived spread quickly.
Hank laughed when he saw St. Peter wearing the Braves hat…
About the same time that was happening, I was talking with Bob Woodall, a friend with whom I’d grown up. Bob had actually seen Hank, in person, last October. We talked about the old ballplayer as if we were still ten years old and I told him about the Monday evening I remembered from around that time.
It was early April—the 8th, I think—in 1974. My sister, Kristi, and I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. I can recall glancing over my shoulder at my parents. For once, my father was not rocked back in his squeaky, overstuffed La-Z-Boy. Instead, he was perched on the edge of the big chair’s seat. My mother stood behind him, both hands on the recliner’s head rest, her fingernails threatening to puncture the maroon Naugahyde.
We must have been holding our breath, for when Hank swung and connected with the second pitch, there was an audible gasp of inhalation from my whole family. We held that breath as the gears of time almost ground to a stop. Our eyes wide, we didn’t move as two—certainly no more than three—long seconds passed. Then, the ball cleared the left field fence and the man we loved like a family member quickly jogged around the bases for the seven-hundred-fifteenth time in his career.
We went nuts.
It’s been almost five decades since Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record. Our parents have been dead for more than forty years. Still, I can see that moment—screaming with my sister, hugging my dad, Mama’s tears—as if the scene had been in a favorite movie I’d watched again and again as a child.
Even now, the importance of the event to a white, southern family who didn’t particularly love baseball seems curious. I didn’t even know anyone who knew Henry Aaron, but he was from Mobile, Alabama and my dad was from Jackson, Alabama. Get it? The greatest ballplayer in the world and my father were born a mere sixty miles apart. “The Hammer” was practically my big brother!
“Keep your eye on him,” my dad would say. “Notice how he acts after he hits a home run. Notice how he acts when he strikes out. Watch the look on his face when he talks to the umpire or other players, or to the press… Mr. Aaron is not just a great athlete. He’s a great man.”
So, I did watch him. Even though I was a skinny kid who wore glasses and sang in the church choir, Hank was my idol. He was from Alabama, just like me.
Of course, that seemed to be the only thing we had in common. Me? I was uneasy around girls, constantly worried about grades, and in my “First National Bank” uniform, I was terrified to step into a Little League batter’s box—especially when our town’s twelve-year-old giant, Steadman Shealy, was pitching for Kiwanis Club.
But Hank Aaron? He wasn’t scared of nothin’. And I loved him. I loved the “Outfielder—Number 44” in a way that only a little boy can love a famous man he’s never even met.
It might interest you to know that for the rest of my life, I continued to watch how my hero lived his. At 86 years of age, he continued to receive folks like you and me with a handshake, encouraging words, and the same broad smile.
After my story, Bob told me about the time last fall, when he’d crossed paths with the legend in an Atlanta restaurant and ended with, “A finer gentleman than Mr. Aaron, you’ll never meet.”
When I agreed, my friend stared at me with steel in his eyes. Then, he lifted his chin, and without blinking, or the barest hint of a smile, added this: “His humility is inspiring. Just running into him like that, no one would ever guess that he hit more home runs than anybody in history. Hank Aaron holds baseball’s greatest record.”
With steel in my own eyes, I nodded, knowing full well the message Bob was delivering. I received it without pause and nodded firmly in agreement. The expression on his face dared me to contradict the words he had just uttered.
Of course, I did not. I would not have. And I will not. Not in a million years. Not ever.
“Who is Barry Bonds?” my friend asked through clenched teeth.
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I never heard of him.”
He nodded and we went our separate ways, neither of us knowing what was happening high above us at that very moment.
When Hank finally reached The Pearly Gates, St. Peter grinned. Motioning with his hand, the old man in the Braves hat said, “Come on now. Step up and dig in.”
Aaron looked to where Peter had indicated. There on the ground lay a familiar seventeen-inch, flat and hard, piece of rubber. Shaped as an irregular pentagon with two parallel sides…it was home plate. Hank was a bit confused and looked to St. Peter, who was watching him with a sly smile.
“Uniform fit okay? Cleats the right size?” Peter asked before leaning close to the ball player, his eyes sparkling with delight. “How do your knees feel, Henry?”
Not until that moment had Aaron realized he was wearing his old uniform. On his feet were laced the same old cleats he’d used years before. Surprised by the old man’s question however, Hank flexed his legs. Astonishment filled his face. “My knees are fine,” he marveled. “Great even. In fact, my whole body is…like…”
“…like it felt on the best day of your life?” St. Peter finished.
Hank nodded and again, St. Peter motioned toward the plate. “Step up,” he said, and handed him a bat. The ballplayer took it without question. It was a Louisville Slugger with his name on it. Made of Ash, the bat was thirty-five inches long and weighed thirty-three ounces.
Hank did a couple of practice swings and with encouragement from St. Peter, stepped into the batter’s box that had been drawn in chalk beside the plate. At that moment, St. Peter reached for a button on his podium and pressed it down dramatically.
In that instant, Hank saw the white lights he’d heard about for years, but immediately recognized them for what they were. He was surrounded by circular banks of dazzling bulbs, stacked side by side and up and down, illuminating a stadium filled with people. Looking to their faces, he saw family and friends. They were mixed in with thousands of others who were standing, clapping, and cheering loudly.
He heard a trumpet blast and looked toward left field. There the Archangel Gabriel stood with Chief Noc-A-Homa beside his tepee. As the ballplayer smiled, Gabriel lifted the trumpet to his lips and blew six loud notes that the crowd obviously identified for they responded in unison by roaring, “CHARGE!”
“Here we go,” St. Peter said. Hank blinked. A team with uniforms of blue and white were in position on the field. He glanced at the home dugout and saw many of the players who’d been his own teammates through the years standing along the rail. They, like the crowd, were cheering, whistling and clapping.
He took a practice swing and looked toward the mound. The pitcher was in the stretch, holding a runner on first. He kicked and threw. Aaron took it low for a ball and briefly stepped out of the box. Glancing toward St. Peter, Hank smiled when he saw the old man wiggle his eyebrows.
As he stepped back up to the plate, Henry saw the pitcher was ready. Still in the stretch, the pitcher looked quickly toward first to hold the runner on, then back at the batter. He reared back, kicked his leg high in the air, and came forward in a rush, slinging a fastball more than ninety-five miles per hour toward the plate.
To Hank, the ball seemed to hang there in front of him. So he swung with everything he had and as he connected, Hank watched the ball sear a trail through the night sky like a comet burning across earth’s atmosphere. He dropped the bat and began his familiar jog around the basepath.
Almost as soon as the ball left his bat, Hank heard the voice of Milo Hamilton calling the play. “There’s a drive!” the announcer cried. “It’s deep….back…back…way back…and gone! Henry Aaron has done it again! It’s a home run!”
As Hank rounded third, he saw his Mama and Daddy waiting at the plate. Jackie Robinson was there with them. Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige crowded in. Tommy Lasorda had come from the other dugout and was grinning from ear to ear. Willie Mays had come from somewhere and hugged Hank’s father. The crowd stomped their feet and roared.
As he approached the plate, Jackie Robinson waved everyone back, saying, “Wait! Wait! Let him touch it!”
The pathway cleared, the ball player took a big jump, and landed on the plate with both feet, immediately falling into the arms of his mother.
St. Peter, at his podium just a few feet away, watched for a moment, before picking up his pen and opening a large book. There, on the right side of the page, under a column of names, he carefully wrote, January 22, 2021—Henry Louis Aaron—Safe At Home.