My Open Letter to Henry Aaron; Say It Ain't So, Hank
(An open letter to Henry Aaron.)
I only have one picture of a non-family member on my desk. It’s a picture of a much younger me shaking hands with my sports idol. You.
I’ve looked at it every day for more than a decade – you gracious and polite, me awkward and star-struck.
So this is hard for me to write.
Last Wednesday, on the 40th anniversary of your 715th home run, I devoted half an hour on my radio show to making the case that you were the greatest athlete ever to play ball in Milwaukee. It wasn’t even close.
I ran through the stats, which you know better than I ever will, but I also talked about the class and the character you brought to the game. I was proud to have met you. Proud to have followed your career for more than 50 years. Proud you played in my hometown.
The next day, you compared me to a Klansman. A white hooded bigot.
The headline read: "Hank Aaron compares Republicans and other Obama opponents to KKK ."
"The biggest difference is that back then they had hoods," Aaron said. "Now they have neckties and starched shirts."
"Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated."
Of course, we’ve all had to get used to toxic political rhetoric, the hate speech of partisan rancor that has become the background noise of our ideological wars. But this felt different, somehow like a bond broken.
"We loved him," one fan told me. "And he slapped us." Her reaction wasn't anger as much as it was disappointment.
Hank, you have certainly earned the right to your views or to state them as colorfully as you want. But did you realize that you were calling perhaps half your fans – who disagree with the president politically -- bigots?
Do you know who they are?
They were the people who followed you, cheered for you, supported you, stayed up late comparing stories about you. Put pictures of themselves with you on their desks.
And yes, maybe they disagreed with you about politics. But this was baseball and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that baseball helped us leave those divisions behind. I actually still get goose bumps when I watch that scene in "Field of Dreams" where James Earl Jones says:
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again…"
I guess part of me actually believes that.
I’m not naïve enough to think that there is a bright line that separate politics and sports, because the influence goes both ways. You and Jackie Robinson helped show America the stupidity and self-defeating nature of racism. You did it with courage and dignity and did as much as any politician to break down barriers and draw people together.
It didn’t matter what your daddy did, or the color of your skin, or whether you worked in a factory, when people sat in the stands and watched that magnificent stride, the swing, and the arc of the ball off the greatest home run hitter who ever lived.
In commemorating your achievement as baseball’s "true home run king," Commissioner Bud Selig called you "the embodiment of the American spirit."
So is it now the embodiment of the American spirit to call people you disagree with hooded bigots? Maybe so.
But we didn’t expect to hear it from you, Hank.