Thursday, February 6, 2014

Happy 80th, Hank Aaron

When this 1958 Topps card came out,
Aaron was just 24 and the reigning MVP.
I was just 3 and not yet a card-bagger.
     I listened to hundreds of Henry Aaron's home runs on the radio when I was growing up but never really got to know him until I read a friend's book.
     Lonnie Wheeler was among a crop of Missouri journalism graduates hired by my hometown newspaper in 1974, the same year that the 40-year-old Aaron broke Babe Ruth's 39-year-old home-run record.
     Wheeler was to the Anderson Independent what Aaron once was to the Eau Claire Bearspaying his dues in a minor-league town but destined for big-league headlines. 
     Working with Lonnie when I was fresh out of high school was the kind of opportunity that you enjoy in the moment and appreciate in hindsight. He wrote sports like nobody I had ever read. 
     Once we took a spring-break trip up to New England, where Lonnie interviewed for a job or two along the way. We broke down the road atlas to figure out the most common town name in America (Springfield or Franklin, as I recall) and stopped at the Blue Ball Bowl near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, to watch Willie Smith and Missouri play an NCAA basketball playoff. Meanwhile, I embarrassed myself by trying to order sweet ice tea in frost-heaven New Hampshire. I was just along for the ride. 
     Lonnie and Mickey Spagnola were the main reasons I went from Anderson to Mizzou, sight unseen.
     Anderson being two hours from Atlanta, we considered ourselves Braves Country. Lonnie went down to Atlanta one weekend and came back with a three-part series on Hank Aaron that was way above the reading level of most of us in Anderson. Soon after that, Lonnie was on his way to becoming a star columnist in Cincinnati and an acclaimed author. 
Is this the best Christmas present ever?!?!?!?! Thanks, Mama.
     I was reminded of Lonnie this week when I heard that Hank Aaron, my boyhood hero, has turned 80.
     In 1991, fifteen years after Lonnie left Anderson, he collaborated with Aaron to write "I Had A Hammer." One of my prized possessions is a copy that my mom gave me for Christmas, signed by Lonnie and Hank. 
     Gifted writer that he is, Lonnie taps into Hank's eloquence even as he lets him tell his own story. Here is a passage from Wheeler's introduction as Aaron, then 57, pondered his legacy:
He commented that he envied musicians because musicians never die--their music is preserved and played for eternity. Aaron is immortal in the baseball sense, but none of his 755 home runs will ever happen again, and the question of his legacy is one that he has not subdued. He has no self-doubts about his enduring qualifications as a ballplayer, but wonders where ballplaying fits in the greater scheme--in effect, where he fits in the greater scheme.
      The greater scheme was the American civil-rights era that harmonized with Aaron's baseball career. For a southerner who admired Aaron but blithely tolerated too much of the sweet-tea status quo, the book was eye-opening and soul-wrenching. Here's Lonnie:
It's a delicate book, because it attempts to deal with a man's complaint without complaining. Aaron is compelled to file his grievances against baseball but has no urge to lash out at the game he loves and owes. He wishes to get his message across without the graceless effect of a soapbox or sandwich board. What he wishes, really, is to speak his piece and think out loud about where he's been that others haven't, what he's seen that others couldn't, and how it all adds up. 
     It's interesting how the "N" word has become an issue today, just as it was 40 years ago when Aaron was closing in on Ruth. Back then, it was associated with death threats. Today, it's a 15-yard penalty or a technical foul. 
     "Hammer" helps me to appreciate how far America has comeand see how far we still have to go. Thanks, Lonnie. 

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