My sister was born on March 29, 1974, in Atlanta, Georgia, precisely ten days before Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record in the same city. I’ve felt a kinship — of time and place — with Hammerin’ Hank for more than 40 years now, as I’m among a very few Americans who had a more significant spring in 1974 than Aaron. A baseball record is one thing, an only sibling quite another.
On a trip to the Gulf Coast last week, my family paid a visit to the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum in Mobile, Alabama.
On a Thursday morning bright with sunshine, the four of us entered the walls originally built by Aaron’s father, Herbert, in 1942. Herbert paid a total of $106 for two plots of land on which the home was built, and Aaron’s mother, Estella, lived in the house for 65 years, until the year before her death in 2008. (Herbert died 10 years earlier.) In 2008, the structure — twice expanded from its original 600 square feet by Mr. Aaron — was lifted onto a flatbed and moved to a spot adjacent to Hank Aaron Stadium, now home to the Mobile BayBears (Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks), giving all new meaning to the words “Mobile home.” And it’s a shrine of the first order.
Each room is identified for its use during Aaron’s childhood (Aaron was born in 1934). But only the kitchen looks as it did during its most famous occupant’s youth. The other rooms showcase photos, documents, awards, and equipment belonging to one of the most significant figures — let alone, athletes — of the last century. You’ll see a jersey and cap worn in 1973, during Aaron’s 40-homer campaign that took him to the brink of history. Gleaming within its glass case is a full-size silver hammer, crafted and presented to Aaron upon becoming the first baseball player to accumulate 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. It looks like something a superhero might wield in a new Marvel Studios film, but instead symbolizes the superhuman achievements of a mere mortal.
Gawking at one display after another, I wondered if Aaron’s long baseball career and otherworldly statistics have ironically diminished his standing in America’s civil rights movement. There can be only one Jackie Robinson. (Aaron broke into the big leagues in 1954, seven years after Robinson.) But when Aaron’s Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta before the 1966 season, Aaron took center stage — as a black man — in a record chase that would make much of white America scream in protest, and in the backyard of Martin Luther King himself. If you’ve read anything about Aaron’s pursuit of 715 home runs, you know he received hundreds (thousands?) of racist letters, threats of violence toward Aaron himself and his family should he get too close to Ruth’s hallowed mark. (When her son broke the record, Estella claimed she ran onto the field to hug him more as protection from a bullet than for a congratulatory embrace.)
We don’t often read, though, of the countless white children who considered Aaron a hero, perhaps their first black hero, though his skin color was as relevant to his heroics as that cursive (small-case) letter “a” on his Braves cap. I was one of those kids, too young to fully appreciate what — or who — I was seeing as a 4-year-old at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but old enough to remember the association between Hank Aaron and home run. I admired Aaron’s impact on the world long before I followed my daughters into his former living room last week. The goose bumps in that living room were 40 years in the making.
Mobile, Alabama, is the birthplace of five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, more than any other city except New York and Los Angeles. Plaques for each of the five can be found on the grounds of Hank Aaron Stadium. (In addition to Aaron, Satchel Paige, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, and Ozzie Smith each drew his first breath in Mobile.) This is hallowed baseball ground, and merely a six-hour drive from Memphis. I love few things more than my little sister, and one of the things I love about her is her connection — at 10 days old — to a great date (April 8, 1974) and a great man in American history.
I highly recommend reading Howard Bryant’s definitive biography of Aaron (The Last Hero), published in 2010.