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Hank Had A Hammer

How Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s home record brought our country together in the face of the worst of itself and how it can now …

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On a misty Atlanta evening in April 1974, with a quick flick of his powerful wrists, Hank Aaron sent a 1–0 fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing flying through the smoky air and over the fence in left-centerfield, knocking Babe Ruth from his perch as baseball’s all-time career home run leader, and sending the voice of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully into millions of households across the country …

“What a marvelous moment for baseball … What a marvelous moment for the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia … What a marvelous moment for our country and the world … A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

Scully, while capturing the spirit of the moment, left out one bit: Aaron was receiving a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time white baseball idol in the same city that birthed and raised Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in the same state trees can assume ghostly figures and Ray Charles was banned from preforming after refusing to play a racially-segregated show 12 years earlier, and in a time America was dealing with its not-so-distant dark past.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Aaron’s chase laid bare the raw racism still prevalent in the country. Over his three-year chase of Ruth, Aaron received over roughly 3,000 pieces of mail a day, many of which were racist and contained death threats against him and his family.

But while Aaron’s chase brought out the worst in some people, his courage also taught millions about the value of acceptance, respect for the challenges facing many Black Americans and proved we could appeal to our “better angels.”

In his 1974 book, “One for the Record: The Inside Story of Hank Aaron’s Chase for the Home Run Record,” the late American journalist George Plimpton described the uptick in public support Aaron received after the press revealed the threats and treatment he and his family endured throughout his pursuit.

The image of Aaron being escorted around second base by two jubilant white high school students not only became one of the most iconic in sports history, but suggested we could live up to our nation’s inherent morality. It was a glimpse into a country where empathy could win out over indifference, acceptance could triumph over intolerance and solidarity could replace isolation.

The shift in emotions and thinking and the uptick in public support Aaron received over the final leg of his chase served as an expression of faith in the American experiment.

In his remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, President Barack Obama spoke of the highest form of patriotism by which our citizens hold true to the idea America isn’t finished, that we can be strong and wise enough to be self-critical, that every generation can turn the camera inward on themselves and wipe the grit and grime off the lens, ensuring our nation is always reminded of its highest ideals.

It’s that type of patriotism that was present in Selma and Montgomery in 1965, and in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1974, and it’s the type of patriotism our country needs now.

Aaron won over our nation with his character, courage and humility in the face of some of the worst America had to offer and it’s time we go to these traits as a country currently staring down the barrel at some of the worst of itself.

We’re currently in a state of political divide and demonization not seen in our nation since the 1960s, if ever. In the words of Seth Avett and The Avett Brothers’ 2019 tune, “High Steppin,’” “It’s warfare out there, folks,” and it is. It’s the Hatfield’s vs. the McCoy’s, Burr against Hamilton, Duke vs. North Carolina, the Chiefs against the Raiders.

We’ve forgotten we’re a nation that laughed when a lawyer showed up to a virtual court appearance with a cat filter across his face, a nation that watches crappy reality TV and that’s learned how to enjoy the mini-vacation that’s walking to the driver’s side after getting the kids into the car.

It’s high time for us to have the courage to step up and be self-critical, to find the grit to sit down with each other and have the hard conversations. It’s time for us to possess the character to ask why our nation is so divided and what we can do to heal it, to become a nation mostly indivisible under God.

It’s time we have the humility to listen to one another, hear one another and see one another. It’s time we stand in the other person’s shoes and see things from their viewpoint. It’s time found common ground. Like we did in Atlanta, Montgomery and Selma, it’s time for us to be self-critical and say we’re better than the bickering, better than the division, better than the hate. It’s time we reject any philosophy or status quo that goes against the principles our flawed founding fathers laid to paper.

I never will forget the first time I walked into Atlanta-Fulton County for the first time and looking down at the spot in left-center where Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run left the building. I was only eight or nine years old at the time, but I remember feeling reverent — even though I had no idea what the word meant — looking down at the mark commemorating Aaron’s historic achievement. It was the first time I realized the healing power of sports. Their ability to bring us together by allowing us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Aaron’s chase came during a tumultuous time in our country’s history. Racial tensions were bubbling over, our nation was divided over our involvement in Vietnam, Watergate had split our country in half and anti-war and civil-rights activists were fighting with the Silent Majority, creating the state of divisive politics we see today.

However, if only for a brief moment, our nation came together for the first time in over a decade to celebrate Aaron’s historic accomplishment. And while I’m not naïve enough to believe everybody paying attention was doing so in support of Aaron, I am optimistic enough to believe a majority of those tuning in were doing so to celebrate Aaron’s character, courage, endurance and resilience.

Aaron’s chasing of Ruth, and the breaking of Ruth’s record, spoke to every aspect of the American Dream. The self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” and that if Aaron’s athletic talent can be equal or greater than a white man’s, then he’s equal as a man and should damn well be treated like it.

They spoke to the belief that anyone, no matter where they were born or what class or race they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Aaron’s ascension from a poor black youth in the Jim Crow South, growing up making balls and bats out of whatever he could find and practicing by hitting bottle caps with sticks, to becoming a baseball idol, was proof in the pudding of what could happen with hard work, risk taking and sacrifice, in a land where the barriers are few.

They proved the American experiment can succeed. The idea our nation is capable of governing itself. The idea that “We the People …. In order to form a perfect union,” can come together in rejecting any philosophy or status quo that promotes division or hate. And what could be more American than Aaron, a dreamer, a man not born of privilege or wealth, an everyday guy, help re-align our nation with its highest ideals?

That’s what Aaron did. He brought us together over all the qualities that make America, despite its many pimples and warts, one of the greatest countries in the world. It’s these principles, not some talking-head, slick-suited news anchors and politicians that create the divide and run when their chickens come home to roost, that define this country.

While the main title of Aaron’s 1991 autobiography, “I Had A Hammer,” was a nod to his ‘Hammerin’ Hank” moniker, it could very easily be a reference to Lee Hays and Pete Seeger’s 1949 tune, “If I Had A Hammer,” considering Aaron’s cultural influence and the song’s call for equality.

The first two verses of the tune talking about re-purposing a hammer and work bell into tools of equality while the third verse discusses the importance of having a song. The final verse reminds listeners they have a hammer, bell and a song, and it’s up to them to decide how to use them in fighting for equality.

The tune was made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962 when their version became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. While the hammer, bell and song remained powerful symbols in their version, but it was the refrain that sang about “love between my brothers and my sisters,” that proved prominent.

While Aaron didn’t have a theme song or work bell throughout his chase, he did have a hammer — albeit one made of ash and maple wood instead of steel — and he used it to unite our nation by showing it the best of itself in the face of the worst of itself. He brought us together and promoted “love between my brothers and sisters” by reminding us of what makes our country so great, despite its many flaws.

So, yes, Aaron had a hammer, and we must ensure his death doesn’t mean it will lay unused in the red clay. We must pick it up and continue to fight for a just and fair America, an inclusive America and a generous America.

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