Hank Aaron was my dad’s favorite player. He grew up in northern Wisconsin and when the Braves moved to Milwaukee, he picked Aaron as his guy. Choosing an African-American as your favorite player was still a bit of an anomaly in those days, and he took grief for it from some of the locals, but my dad said Aaron had the sweetest swing he ever saw, and the color of a man’s skin had no bearing on how he played the game.
While my first baseball game seeing the Angels when they played in Dodger Stadium, the one that is burned in my memory is when my dad took the family to see the Atlanta Braves play the Dodgers. My dad wanted to get there early for batting practice. “You’re gonna see something special,” he told my brother and I. “Just watch when number 44 comes up.”
Aaron did not disappoint. During batting practice. Aaron hit two off the roof of the left field pavilion, and I distinctly remember the sound the ball made when it hit the metal roof. The ballpark was still fairly empty, but when Aaron hit the ball, the loud crack echoed through the stadium, and the sparse crowd went silent.
My brother and I looked at our dad in utter amazement, and my dad gave us that knowing smile that only a dad can give.
At that game, he started my long education in the game of baseball. He taught me about the strategy, why fielders position themselves in certain places, why a pitcher throws a curveball instead of a fastball, and countless other lessons. Not only did he teach me, but for 25 years, he coached a little league team. Even though he had no kids of his own in the league, he coached. All he wanted to do, he said, was teach kids baseball. When he stopped coaching, the league put up a plaque honoring him.
Even today, when I run into an ex-player of his, they always have something nice to say about my dad, and how he made the art of baseball make sense.
My dad died in 1986, on the night that Bill Buckner let that infamous grounder roll through his legs. For some reason, it seems completely logical that my dad left this earth on a night when a very basic play went sour.
Whenever I see Hank Aaron, I think of my dad. And I always smile.