There were grainy, chopped up tapes of Hank Aaron talking about hitting more than 20 home runs for 20 straight seasons; tapes of him in the early sixties, discussing removal of segregation signs and policies at the Milwaukee Braves’ spring training facility in Sarasota Springs; footage of their contest against the Dodgers in Atlanta on April8, 1974, where he hit his 715th home run in front of 54,000 people and broke Babe Ruth’s record.
It happened in the fourth inning, with two outs and a man on first base. Though I knew exactly when it happened, I would never fast-forward; somehow, that seemed like cheating. Dad always said that it was a whole game, a whole season and ultimately an entire career that led up to an unforgettable moment, that there was no way you could cut corners and get there, and that Hank Aaron’s story exemplified this fact perfectly. So I felt that I absolutely needed to watch the whole game, see the way he played Downing, the veteran pitcher, and take notes on his patience, which was something I always needed to work on.
The record-breaking game was by far my favorite tapes, though another one that Dad had of Hank explaining the spate of hate letters he received from people around the country who didn’t want him to break the record just because he was black was my second favorite. Jason found this tape morbid; I could tell by the way his nose wrinkled up every time he heard the word “nigger.”
“Dear Nigger Henry,” Hank Aaron read to the camera, enunciating each word. “It has come to our attention that you are going to break Babe Ruth’s record. I don’t think that you are going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. Getting back to your blackness, I don’t think any coon should ever play baseball. Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. I will be going to the rest of your games and if you hit more than one home run it will be your last. My gun is watching your every black move. This is no joke.”
Jason would slowly back out of the room whenever this footage came on, but I would just start laughing. I laughed because Hank Aaron had done it anyway. People were threatening to kill him every time he went up to bat, just because he was so good that he was going to break a record that a white man had happened to set. I was sure I could see it each time he stepped up to his plate, the laughter, which was also my laughter, settling into the contours of his face. Though I had never faced what he had, I felt like I knew something about how he felt up there, how he just had to play, even though he himself might never know why.
I studied those tapes. I began waiting for Jason to leave the room even before he joined me to start watching them. He didn’t know, he didn’t understand. It was as if Hank Aaron scared him. That’s when I decided that baseball was only for those of us who weren’t scared, who, like Hank, could say the word “nigger” to the screen and never flinch.
When I was eight, I began watching those tapes with my nose inches from the screen, trying to see every detail of his batting stance, every snap of his wrist. That was when I decided I would be just like Hank Aaron whenever I went on the field. Whenever I felt alone, I would think of him. That was when I began dreaming I was Hank Aaron’s daughter. As I peered at the flickering screen, I was sure I could see in his eyes the same decision to leave all the questions, all the fear behind when he stepped up to the plate.