Saturday, January 23, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Chipper Jones, on Hank Aaron’s ‘Class and Integrity’)

“I can’t imagine what Hank Aaron went through in his lifetime. He had every right to be angry or militant.....but never was! He spread his grace on everything and every one he came in contact with. Epitome of class and integrity. RIP Henry Aaron! #HammerinHank”—Former Atlanta Braves All-Star third baseman Chipper Jones, tweet of Jan 22, 2021

I agree with this well-meaning tribute by Chipper Jones to fellow Braves great Hank Aaron, except for that second sentence. The African-American slugger was indeed “angry” about the torrential abuse rained on him by bigots for breaking Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs.

Wouldn’t you be, if the FBI needed to investigate death threats against you and kidnapping threats against members of your family?

Wouldn’t you be, if you had obeyed one of the cardinal rules of American society—to succeed, work hard—only to grasp that for countless unseen cowards, this was not enough?

Wouldn’t you be if, decades after praising two of your heroes (Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella) for proving to the world that “a man’s ability is only limited by his lack of opportunity,” major-league baseball was still making painfully slow progress in placing minorities in managerial and front-office positions?

It would have been more correct for Jones to tweet, then, that Aaron was not as angry as he had every right to have been about the rancid racism he experienced for decades

I not only, like Jones, “can’t imagine” what Aaron went through, but how he restrained himself from saying anything more scathing about John Rocker’s 1999 Sports Illustrated interview than that he had “no place in my heart” for the prejudiced pitcher's infamous comments about gays and minorities.

In other respects, Jones is correct: Aaron did epitomize grace, class and integrity—and so much more. Though physically gifted (the young Alfonso Soriano was praised for strong, quick wrists that reminded many of “Hammerin’ Hank”), he realized it wasn’t enough.

This meant that, as teammate Dusty Baker told the New York Daily News’ Jesse Spector in 2007, Aaron exercised “total recall” on how he had fared against every pitcher he ever faced—"line out, walk, all kinds of stuff.”

And so, quietly, without the flair for the moment displayed by contemporaries Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, Aaron mounted his inexorable assault on Ruth’s hallowed career HR record. (By the way: Aaron achieved that mark in an era of pitcher dominance and competition from African- and Hispanic-American players excluded in Ruth’s era—and without the performance-enhancing drugs used by Barry Bonds.)

Along the way, he not only posted other offensive records (most RBIs, total bases, extra-base hits, and All-Star Game appearances) but demonstrated excellence in other aspects of the game, stealing 20 or more bases six times and winning three Gold Gloves for his defensive play in the outfield.

Hank Aaron was enshrined in Cooperstown because of these astounding career totals. But he is universally mourned because he was a model of dignity, dependability and perseverance. I am just sorry for younger fans who, unlike me and others of my generation, were not fortunate enough to see him play.

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