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JIM BURTON: Hank Aaron’s legacy lives on

We all need a little Hank Aaron in our lives. 

Especially in this day and age when we all seem to be at each other’s throats, looking for something to be mad at. Sadly, Hammerin’ Hank — the very definition of a baseball legend — died Friday at age 86. But his legacy lives on, like a beacon for the rest of us.  

As a kid, I loved baseball — still do actually — and Hank was one of my favorites. The house I grew up in had a rather nondescript backyard. Our neighbors had a swimming pool in theirs, and I was jealous of that, especially on hot Texas summer days. But our backyard had something I used almost every day in the spring and summer. 

We had a large wall, comprised mostly of red bricks with shrubs covering the bottom. But there was, however, a single white brick right in the middle of the strike zone. Nobody planned it that way, it just an amazing happenstance. 

One brick, right where home plate would be. 

If I stood near the wooden fence opposite the wall, I was maybe 35 or 40 feet away from the plate. It wasn’t the necessary 60-feet, six inches designated in the baseball rule book, but in my young mind, it was a beautifully groomed pitcher’s mound, good enough for any ballpark in Major League Baseball. 

I spent hours in that yard, baseball glove in hand, hurling a tennis ball and that one white brick. 

Hammerin’ Hank visited my backyard often. And I struck him out almost every time. 

I say “almost” because even in my childlike imagination, I was a realist. Hank homered off everyone at least once. 

Those memories came back to me Friday, after I learned of Mr. Aaron’s death. During the course of the past 12 or 15 months, we’ve lost some amazing baseball legends: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Don Larsen, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Tommy Lasorda and now Hank Aaron. 

For someone like me, who grew up throwing a ball against a brick wall, pretending to play the game with legends, it’s a painful thing, not just because it’s sad to see those guys go, it’s a reminder that I’m now slightly beyond middle age, and the heroes of my youth are walking into that “Field of Dreams” cornfield (hopefully you get that reference). 

But, man, I sure loved Hank Aaron. 

As a kid I had no idea all he had gone through growing up in the Deep South, at a time when African-Americans suffered incredible indignities. I had no idea what Hank was going through as he charged after Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1973 and ’74. 

He hit home run No. 713, leaving him one short of The Babe, on Sept. 29, 1973, with just one game remaining in the regular season. 

I was 9-years-old at the time. 

After a long offseason in which Hank’s potential record-breaker was on the minds of baseball diehards and casual sports fans alike, Aaron hit No. 714 on his first swing of the ’74 season. He broke the record with home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974, a Monday night. The game was carried live nationally as part of ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball.”

I was 10 at the time. 

I never missed “Monday Night Baseball,” but on school nights, my mother insisted I be in bed at a decent time, which meant I rarely saw the end of the game. But I have a very distinct memory of April 8, 1974. Even my mother knew about Hammerin’ Hank and his pursuit of The Babe’s home run mark. After some begging on my part, she gave me the OK to stay up late in the hopes of seeing history made. 

And it was. I saw it happen. 

It’s amazing the amount of useless information I’ve held on to over nearly 57 years of existence. And it’s downright astonishing the stuff I’ve forgotten. 

But I will never forget seeing Hank hit home run No. 715. 

Several years later, in the mid-1990s, I was working as a sportswriter when Hank came to Salt Lake City for a press conference. I jumped at the chance to cover the event and meet Mr. Aaron. 

I don’t even remember all the details of the event, but it was an exciting day. 

Not long ago a friend showed me a picture taken during that long ago press conference. Hank is sitting at a table surrounded by a TV camera and several reporters. 

Believe it or not, the event was held at an Arby’s. 

Yes, that’s right; an Arby’s. Hank had an association with the restaurant chain, so that’s why it his press conference, which was to promote his book, “I had a Hammer.”

There I was, standing just a few feet away from the great Hank Aaron. My sportswriter career allowed me to meet some famous athletes, and I always tried to remind myself how fortunate I was to have a job like that. But meeting Hank, well, that was as memorable a moment as I ever had. 

The thing I remember most about Aaron was the dignity with which he carried himself. He was quiet, but not shy; confident, but not cocky. He was reserved, but not aloof; strong, but not flashy. 

He made no bones about being an advocate for African-Americans in baseball. He said he wanted to see more black managers and general managers. He spoke of wanting to see more African-American players, and that he was concerned that baseball had lost its popularity in the inner-cities. 

He also spoke of the racism he faced growing up in Alabama and playing ball in the Negro Leagues. Of course, he spoke of the backlash he faced while chasing down Babe Ruth’s home run record. He received death threats, and even advised his teammates not to stand too close to him in the dugout. He received hate mail by the thousands, most of it filled with racial epithets and crude drawings. 

Naturally, he was sacred for himself and his family. He took the threats seriously, as anyone would. But when it came to staying true to himself, he never compromised. He never, ever lost his dignity; never relinquished his inner strength. 

I’ve long had a theory, which I first developed while watching and covering sports. Simply put, it’s this: The truly great ones make it look easy, as though anyone can do it. 

Of course the truth is, not everyone can do it. 

Lots of people have the athleticism, or the physical makeup. But when it comes down to it, it’s what’s not seen that counts the most. 

It’s in the mental drive and will to win. It’s in the competitive instinct to prove oneself. It’s in the quiet confidence that comes from the inside and shines out to the rest of the world. 

Hank Aaron had all that and more. 

He stood out, like that singular white brick in the red-brick wall in my backyard . . . like a beacon. 

Jim Burton is a former sports writer and columnist for the Standard-Examiner

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