It was 1968, and I was an 11-year-old white boy in Appalachian Virginia imagining I was Hank Aaron. Home from school for the summer, a small group of us gathered for mornings in our backyard to play Whiffle ball — with a plastic bat and ball, and bases made from scraps of wood. A forsythia hedge, some 75 feet from the back steps where we batted, was the outfield fence. The innovation we came up with was to pretend to be major league players, reading stats and biographical facts about our favorite players from their baseball cards. That summer I spent all my allowance on Topps cards, which came five to a pack with a piece of flat bubblegum. I kept my cards in a shoe box with rubber bands around each team. The more cards I had, the better lineup I could put on the field.
A tingle ran down my spine when I opened a five-pack and found Hank Aaron. He had just hit 39 home runs the year before and had been voted MVP more than once, often competing with players like Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays for batting titles. The back of my card, which I still have, states, “The veteran slugging star continued his annual hitting last season.” Pretending to be a baseball announcer on TV, I read this quote aloud to our group, along with his batting average and home run count. He had hit 481 homers by the end of last season, I repeated, unaware of his greater achievements to come.
Henry Aaron had moved to Atlanta in 1966. I had no clue what dangers his move to the South meant for a Black player already chasing Babe Ruth’s record. All I knew is that when I pretended to be Hammerin’ Hank, I was swinging for those forsythias with a good chance of clearing them. That card shows wear where I fingered it countless times, memorizing his career, then grabbing the bat and being him for a few minutes. The Topps card may be a collector’s item, but to me it was a talisman. I cannot part with it to this day.
In September 2016, I was a guest of Farm Aid at their concert near Washington, DC. They were debuting a film I made for them about family farm advocacy. I was at the outside curb at Dulles Airport waiting for a ride when a skycap pushed a wheelchair bearing a distinguished, elderly man accompanied by his beautiful wife and parked him near where I stood. I nodded a greeting. Then I did a double take and my heart began beating faster. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, “But you look exactly like Henry Aaron.” He smiled and replied, “I’ve been accused of that.” I nearly shouted: “You are?!” Suddenly I was a kid again, asking sheepishly if I might shake his hand. He extended his, as did Ms. Billye Aaron. I called to my wife who had gone to find a cab, “Please come quick and meet one of my childhood idols.”
When Hank Aaron died on January 22nd, I learned more about his history. I already knew that he had endured racism and ridicule, especially as he neared the 714-home run mark set by Babe Ruth; that he had FBI protection because of death and kidnapping threats. But I only learned this week from a PBS interview with his biographer, Bryant Howard, that Mr. Aaron had confided to Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young that he worried he’d failed to do his part for racial justice. “I’m just a player,” he said. The civil rights leaders were quick to disagree.
I never knew any of the ugly side of baseball as a kid, or what racial strife meant for Black players. Growing up where and how I did, I’d never met any Black person, which made Mr. Aaron and other African American players more than sports role models for me. They were my childhood introduction to diversity and ultimately to social justice.
While shaking Henry Aaron’s hand, I forgot to ask for a photograph with him, but I did have the wherewithal to say something I’m grateful for. “Thank you for what you did for our country,” I said. His smile in return was priceless. Had I a few more minutes, I might have added, thank you for helping teach this kid from Appalachia about what it means to be human. You hammered it home, Mr. Aaron.
Charles D. Thompson, Jr. is a professor of the practice of cultural anthropology at Duke University.