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Hank Aaron: A Thrilling Encounter

Hank Aaron (featured)

by JP Conway

On January 22 of this year, I heard the news that the great Henry (Hank) Aaron passed away at the age of 86. Upon hearing the news, I experienced a great deal of sadness mixed with a wave of gratitude for what he did for the nation, baseball, and for a certain 9 year old boy. That boy was me in 1987.

On Saturday June 6 of that year, my dad took me and my brother down to Atlanta. My mother had died the previous August, and the three of us grieved and adjusted to our new reality partly through baseball-playing catch in the backyard, collecting baseball cards, and watching games together. These outings with my dad and brother gave me a much-needed sense of security and excitement. This particular weekend, our destination was Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (home of the Braves from 1966-1996) to see the Braves take on the San Diego Padres that night as well as a Sunday day game. Dale Murphy homered for the Braves. The future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn got a hit for the Padres. The future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy caught for the Padres (three World Series titles with the Giants.). The game also featured greats such as Ken Griffey Sr. and John Kruk.

But the highlight of the weekend did not come from either of the regular games. Instead, the unforgettable memory comes from an Old Timer’s Exhibition game played that weekend. In those days, once a year, teams would host their alumni to return for a few innings of play before the regular MLB game. As I sat there with my scorecard and hot dog, I felt like I’d traveled back in time. For before my eyes, I saw the great Hank Aaron stroll to the plate. Eleven years after his retirement, at the age of 53, I watched the greatest home run hitter in history step into the box. The crowd rose to their feet in anticipation of greatness. Not one to disappoint, Aaron delighted the crowd by crushing a fastball over the left field wall, the same wall where he hit number 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record 13 years prior. The crowd went bananas, as if the Braves had won the World Series.  Even then, I realized the magic of the moment. Even though I came into the world two years after Hank Aaron retired, I got to see him hit a home run.

But a greater highlight was still to come. My dad’s buddy Mickey had come with us on the trip. A big time collector and autograph seeker, Mickey had been talking with the ushers about the best places to go to meet the players and get a signature. He returned from these conversations with a secret tip. Rumor had it that Aaron, who worked with the Braves organization, would be coming out of a certain elevator in the concourse on his way from the locker room to the executive box. If we stood by the elevator, we had a good chance to meet Aaron.

We sprang into action. I had brought a brand-new baseball for the occasion, shiny white out of the package, along with a black sharpie. I stood with my brother outside the elevators for what seemed like hours. And then, the doors opened, and out walked the most famous person I’ve ever met. I’d been practicing what to say, and my rehearsed plea came out automatically. “Mr. Aaron, can you sign my baseball?”  I knew he might say no. Far from my first rodeo, I’d been rejected before in my autograph seeking. I prepared for a rejection – a rejection that never came. Instead, he looked down, smiled, and replied, “Sure boys, just walk with me.” Continuing his conversation with his party, he reached down to grab my ball and sharpie. Never breaking stride, having done this thousands of times, he signed our balls as he walked. “Thank you, Mr. Aaron.” He smiled, “No problem boys.” I couldn’t believe it. I looked down at the most beautiful baseball I’d ever held and saw these two words, “Hank Aaron.”  I started jumping up and down and raced to show my dad.

I’ve replayed that moment in my mind hundreds of times over the years. The thrill of that encounter far exceeds the memory of the home run or even the possession of the priceless baseball. (As you can see in the featured image I put the ball in a holder alongside a beaten up 1958 Topps Aaron card which my dad still had from his childhood collection.) The greatest home run hitter of all time looked at me and smiled. He acknowledged me. To a 9 year old boy trying to figure a lot of things out, that’s something I’ve always held onto.

Years later, in the summer of 2009, I returned to the scene of this memory. On a trip with teenagers from my church, I had taken a group of them to a Braves game at Turner Field (home of the Braves from 1997 to 2016). As we walked through the parking lot to our van after the game, I saw it. I saw the outfield wall over which Aaron hit both number 715 as well as the homer I saw at the Old Timers game. When they demolished the old Fulton County Stadium to become the parking lot for the new Turner Field, they refused to tear down one part, this section of the leftfield wall. The teenagers in my group were tired and worn out, but I had them stop. I gathered them together, and I told them the story of Hank Aaron. I told them the story of a man who endured great suffering and hardship. I told them about Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s record, as well as the racism he endured on the way. I told them, “Hank Aaron is the greatest homerun hitter of all time, but he’s an even better person.” I knew this to be true, for I had experienced it myself. I’ll never forget Hank Aaron and all that he did, on the field but especially off the field.

FEATURED IMAGE:
JP’s Hank Aaron autographed ball, his Aaron jersey and his Dad’s Aaron ’58 Topps from his childhood

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