On Hank Aaron’s Troubling Epitaph To Racism In America

Hank Aaron: Baseball's True Home Run King (jacobin)

Hank Aaron, baseball’s Home Run King, has passed. But “the story of his life is already at risk.” Exploring what that might mean…

Hank Aaron is the Home Run King of major league baseball in America, and one of these days, Barry Bonds will have the decency to say so.

Regretfully though, media reporting on Aaron’s passing is not left at that.

Instead, journalists, commentators, and radio gasbags insist on “explaining” the ills of the American culture that met Aaron’s introduction to baseball, and even more violently, their interpretation of how Aaron met those challenges.

Hank Aaron: A Baseball Legend (webmd.com)
Hank Aaron: A Baseball Legend (webmd.com)

It’s not an easy task as a white American (as I am) to write about racism these days. Cast as wide-eyed liberals living the good life (which I am), no matter what I (We) says, there is always a level of guilt by association, together with some skepticism from black American citizens.

I don’t where to go or what to say when the topic turns to racism anymore. So many times during my seventy-three years on this planet, the door seemed to be cracked ajar, only to be slammed shut once again.

Hank Aaron’s Life Is My Life, Too

I have images cast in my head of George Wallace standing in the doorway to a Southern school, riots of discontent during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago’s militarized bastion. Civil Rights legislation hurriedly passed in the wake of an American President slain on the streets of Dallas…

To the hope and promise of Dr. Martin Luther King, pleading for a Ghandiesque and non-violent approach for equality, in the face of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers, and Patty Hearst – only to be cut down himself by the hatred behind a well-aimed bullet.

Whether in Charlottesville or Washington DC, the details of the recent past are still vivid, and there should be no reason to cite them here.

Hank Aaron: “The Story Of His Life Is Already At Risk”

But I will say this. Stop reading now if you are not willing to take the time to read this eye-opening piece that appeared in Friday’s New York Daily News by William Bradford Davis.

William Bradford Davis, Journalist
William Bradford Davis, Journalist

Because if we are anything like each other, he is going to shake and rattle you, and more significantly, some of his most-respected colleagues, with some not so welcome questions and commentary.

Here are but a few excerpts as he begins with this opening sentence, “Henry Aaron died on Friday morning, but the story of his life is already at risk.”

To absorb the full thrust, though, of Davis’s concerns, it’s necessary to include this poignant, though lengthy, quote from his writing:

The Associated Press advanced this error by describing Aaron as a “baseball legend who endured racist threats with stoic dignity.” In their obituary, the AP wrote, “exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way.”

ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted, then deleted, that Aaron “ignored hatred as he conquered baseball,” a pitiful choice of words to write about a man who has shared many times since retiring how deeply the hatred he encountered hurt and angered him.

Worse was fellow Braves legend Chipper Jones, who wrote Aaron “had every right to be angry or militant…..but never was,” thinking this as a compliment. “He spread his grace on everything and everyone (sic) he came in contact with.” Like Passan, Chipper served a junkball, and the crowd teed off. William Bradford Davis

Forgive Them; They Know Not What They Do

Davis’s words speak for themselves as they seek to uncover what is hidden beneath too many of us. We think we say and do good things, but we have no clue how we’ll be received at the other end.

Jeff Passan, Chipper Jones, the folks at the AP Wire Service, et al. are “good people” who try to carry the torch of respectable journalism to their work and life.

But still, as Davis so accurately points out, we miss the mark, and our words fall empty by the very souls like Hank Aaron we are revering, and those that represent them today.

Hank Aaron understood our duplicity more than we might want to think:

Aaron understood this more than most. His candid and pointed depictions of Black people’s racism in this country resulted in more death threats.

In 2014, Aaron complained about the Republican mistreatment of Barack Obama, then said, “The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”William Bradford Davis

But nowhere in the absorbing and thoughtful epitaphs engendered by the widespread American media will we find mention of a far-reaching look into Hank Aaron.

Instead, we are more likely to read submissions such as this one to the New York Post by Ken Davidoff, who thought it necessary to include this from Hank Aaron’s former teammate, Brian Jordan:

“I lost a hero,” Jordan said. “As a black boy growing up, loving the game of baseball, Hank Aaron was that guy. He was a huge reason why I selected the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. It was an opportunity for me to meet my hero.

“He is that example that I aspire to be. The hope, the opportunity he’s given so many kids today, young kids like myself watching him … how strong he was throughout this country’s ignorance was amazing. How he’s just stayed humble through it all.”Ken Davidoff, NY Post

Hank Aaron: Victimized By  A Back-Handed Compliment

“Humble” is an interesting and unique word in the dictionary as it is used in our everyday language, and particularly in the quote just above…

From dictionary.com, humble can mean self-effacing, timid, tentative, sheepish, ordinary, and several other synonyms that convey the spirit of its usage.

Is this the territory in which Henry “Hank” Aaron lived his life – and more significantly, is this what William Bradford Davis means when he says, “Hank Aaron is dead, but his life is still at risk?”

I believe that is so, and though the damage is now done, “we” white people need to listen more to journalists like William Bradford Davis and others who seek to rattle our chain in a respectful yet incisive manner.

In return, though, it only fits that Davis and others gave us “white folks” a chance to bear the weight of their criticism and demonstrated hypocrisy – with a renewed tolerance that suggests (if only) we are willing to listen to each other.

Hank Aaron lived an extraordinary life. He rose to the top of his chosen endeavor in life, and the climb was not easy.

Though we have lessons to learn from Hank Aaron’s life experience, it’s too much to say he lived his life as a civil rights activist, as many are portraying him upon passing – or that he would wish to be remembered that way.

Henry Aaron is the most prodigious all-around baseball player of his time. Why can’t that be enough?

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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.