I am republishing this article from 27-years ago on my friendship with Hank Aaron around our mutual love for the game of tennis. Things got much better for him post 1994 but I still consider him largely under appreciated for what he meant to baseball, civil rights and black entrepreneurship. Fortunately, I last spoke with Hank three days ago on January 19 at 5:06 p.m. and the 14 minute call was a great conversation. We discussed the attack on the U.S. Capitol by white supremacists. He doubted that the attacks were over. I agreed. We discussed the recent election of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff (a graduate of Paideia School where my wife has taught for 26 years). He was pleased with both victories. We talked about civil rights and his long friendship with Andrew Young (whom he told me they spoke by phone almost daily). I told him I recently wrote a column that quoted Andy saying he was willing to give his life for the “movement” in the South but when they temporary took occupancy in a rundown apartment building in Chicago he was not willing to be killed by a “junkie” in the middle of the night. We both laughed, saying that statement was so “typically Andy.” I promised to send him the article. I planned to do that yesterday on Jan. 22.
Then, of course we spoke about family, as he proudly boasted about a grandson who recently finished or started college and a granddaughter teaching English abroad. Typical of a grand-dad, he was concerned about her being so far away. He asked about my wife, Nisha, and two daughters who spent much time in his trophy-filled basement while we played tennis. I told him one was an educator and the other a clinical researcher at Emory University trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s so we could have healthier brains and live longer. Having known them since they were small kids, he was pleased to hear about what they were doing now. They only knew him as a close tennis buddy of their daddy, not the legendary baseball great that he was.
I had not spoken with Hank in over a year but I had this strong sense to call him a few days ago and was truly blessed with our final conversation. When I first met him around 1980, I was just a 29-year old young professional trying to make my mark in Atlanta. Hank treated me from the moment we met like a friend and someone worth investing in for a lifetime. He did just this. He gave so much to our relationship–especially his time. We shared many fun and enjoyable moments (most of which will never be shared). He filled the void of an older brother I never had and father I barely knew. He lived and died (in his sleep) on his own terms. Rest in peace my brother.
“My Friendship with Hammerin’ Hank Aaron,” From Visceral Views, High Point, Vol. 2, No. 22 (April 15-26), 1994, p. 5
Last week the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of professional sports’ greatest accomplishments–Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. This was baseball’s most cherished record, so one would assume that Aaron’s name would have immediately become a household fixture. Instead of being fully embraced by the legions of baseball fans, Aaron received over 900,000 pieces of mail the year of his feat, many of them vicious and racially charged.
For fourteen years, Hank and I have been friends. Our relationship started when I accepted an invitation from the late Hillis Davis, one of Southwest Atlanta’s greatest tennis enthusiasts, to play tennis at Aaron’s house. Davis loved the game and got a kick out of seeing players like Hank and me develop our games to the point where we could beat him. We both loved Hillis and were deeply saddened when his life was cut short several years ago by an untimely heart attack, ironically, on another friend’s tennis court, approximately two miles from where Hank and I were given our first introduction.
Hank and I clicked from the beginning. I guess we had much in common. We both were fiercely competitive, tough-minded, and we both used the tennis court as a therapeutic canvass for working out aggression and stress, so we could be calm, cool, and collected in the face of the public. One thing that always will remain part of his and other great competitors’ psychological make-up is their need to win, be number one, the best. This inner drive, in both of us, has caused us to lock horns on more than one occasion. But soon we come to our senses, remembering we make no money kicking each other’s rear ends, and our relationship means more than hollow court victories or bragging rights for the week.
Aaron is the most remarkable athlete I know. This 60-year old man exercises vigorously, some say fanatically on a daily, sometime twice a day basis. He plays six sets of tennis on hot, humid days in Atlanta, while guys half his age poop out after three sets. We tease him about pushing it so hard. He quips, “Got to keep up with you youngsters. I’m twice your ages, you know?” Actually, he’s 17 years my senior. And it is a bit embarrassing those times I bow in defeat to him or run out of steam, while he keeps chugging along.
Corporate America is being foolish not to use him to demonstrate what they mean by transferability of skills. In tennis, because of his great hand-eye coordination, he’s a great volleyer at the net. His strong wrists give him a booming serve and powerful overhead. For a 60-year old man (or a 30-year old man, as far as that is concerned), he has lightning sharp reflexes and remarkable anticipation, like a giant panther.
Aaron is a private man who keeps his most intimate thoughts to himself. I discover aspects of his real personality by remembering seemingly insignificant bits and pieces of information and putting them together, sometimes over a six-month period. When you’re Hank Aaron, you learn how to be private, to tuck away your true feelings, to keep even your friends at bay. There are times, though, I’ve seen his life punctuated with grief, as during the death of his brother. The plight of his five children weighs heavily upon him as well. One can imagine what thoughts go through his mind. Have I been the best father I could have been? Has my greatness triggered in them a rebellion to success?
He’s not a whiner, but there is an emptiness in his eyes and a sense about him being under appreciated by the sport of baseball as well as by fans and leaders of this city. With the exception of a small street behind a graveyard in Southwest Atlanta, there is no road named for him. Though he’s known throughout the world, he’s rarely asked to be an ambassador for the city, state or nation–a role “tailor-made” for him. And last, but not least, corporate America has never shown much faith in his ability to endorse and promote products, despite his photogenic looks, warm smile, and legendary status. In this country we ask our heroes why aren’t you dead? Hank Aaron is alive and well. It’s us I am a bit worried about. So, if you’re driving through southwest Atlanta some night around 10 p.m., look to the sky and hold your ears–you might hear Aaron swearing at himself and see balls lifting up to the stars. This will be a sure sign, he has just lost a match of tennis–probably to me.
Jabari Simama is a former Atlanta City Council member and a professor at Clark Atlanta University.