Saturday, November 15, 2003

Why I Wear # 44 by Lisa Alcock

I play second base on our co-ed company softball team. This year when we got to choose jersey numbers, my very first choice was no. 44, the same number worn by my all-time favorite player. No not, Reggie Jackson (please!), but in my opinion, the only no. 44: Henry (Hank) Louis Aaron. 

I’m only 34, not old enough to have seen Hank play in his heyday, or really remember him in the early ’70s, up until he retired, in 1976. But from what I’ve read about him, and seen on sports specials/documentaries, hands down, Hank is the man.

Hank might not have had as much flair as Willie Mays in the outfield, but he didn’t need to. Hank got the job done. He also didn’t need to loosen his hat so it would fly off when he ran for a fly ball, like Mays was known to have done. In Hank’s 23 seasons, he played mostly right field (he also played first, second and third and was a DH in 1976).  He played in 3,298 games with 7,436 put outs, a fielding percentage of .982 and only 144 errors. He has four gold gloves. Despite these numbers, I think Hank is mostly known for his hitting. Everyone knows the significance of the number 755; it is the most recognizable statistic in baseball.  Hank’s lifetime batting average was .305.  He was the first player to have 3,000 hits and 500 homers. He had two National League batting titles. In 12,364 at bats Hank had 2,174 runs, 2,297 RBIs, 3,771 hits, an on-base percentage of .374 and a slugging percentage of .555.  His statistics are amazing and what got him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But that’s not the only reason I admire Hank.
If I could go back in time, he is one of the players I wish I could have seen play. He is the epitome of grace and power and quiet strength.  He shut up a lot of critics when he surpassed the Babe’s HR record.  I get goose bumps and a little teary-eyed when I see news footage of that game. If I could pick one baseball moment in which to be present, it would be April 8, 1974, Atlanta, Georgia, Dodgers vs. Braves.  In that one defining moment a man from Mobile, Alabama made a statement and wrote baseball history.
It was the 4th inning; Al Downing pitches to Hank…Thwack! The ball was gone!!!  There was Hank, rounding the bases…two fans ran onto the field and patted him on the back…the crowd erupting into a frenzy, and there, waiting at home plate along with his teammates, was his mom. She grabbed him and hugged him…and clung onto him because she had feared he would get shot that day. She has said in interviews that if her son was going to get killed, she was going to go with him. Hank had received many death threats and thousands of pieces of racist hate mail on his road to beating Babe Ruth’s homerun record.  (He’d also received letters of praise and encouragement, all of which he’s saved). Through the racist climate in Atlanta and throughout the country…Henry persevered and excelled. He let his bat and glove speak for him.  Hank and his family were threatened as he moved closer to passing Babe Ruth’s HR record. (FBI agents accompanied his daughter Gaile when she attended Fisk University).  He had to endure things that no one should ever have to endure. He was the pillar of strength and dignity at the darkest hour. He was a strong, somewhat shy, reluctant hero. He's someone to look up to. Not only did he achieve baseball greatness, he brought attention to the fact that baseball didn't exist in a vacuum; the sport was also affected by the racist climate in the U.S.  He gave hope to thousands of kids and adults (myself included) as to how far one could go. If you apply yourself, you can write history. I would think that many players today stand on the shoulders of this giant.
Now, when I step up to the plate…I admit, I’m no Hammerin’ Hank.  I’m lucky if I get a double. But in the back of my mind…Hank is there, the reserved, dignified hero.  Number 44.

By day, Lisa Alcock is a copyeditor at a legal publishing company.  By night, she can usually be found drinking a pint of Guinness at a local pub, or at home watching Law & Order reruns and SportsCenter. It is her dream job to work at ESPN. The author also admits that she has not read the Chicago Manual of Style in its entirety. Kip says of the author: “When she steps inside the white lines herself, she can bring it!”

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