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On January 22, 2021 Henry Aaron died at the age of 86. Why would a mental health professional write a blog about the death of a sports legend? It’s not just because I grew up idolizing Henry Aaron as he battled my other baseball hero, Willie Mays, for championships and home run records. It’s not just because he surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record. It’s because our society is increasingly recognizing the corrosive effects of systemic racism.
It’s fitting and instructive to point out the way Henry Aaron used his life experience during and beyond baseball to do his part to lead America to a better place. Today, one of the many stresses people face are the effects of decades of systemic racism, discrimination, and hate. No one faced that more than Henry Aaron. He overcame all of that and did so in a way that teaches us all many lessons.
Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama at the height of the segregated Jim Crow South. At that time in Mobile, Black voters were almost totally suppressed and lynchings were not uncommon. He never played on a baseball field with White players until he managed to get into the Major League system in the early 1950’s (thanks Jackie Robinson and Commissioner Happy Chandler.)
A famous professional athlete, he had great and well-founded trepidation about coming back to the South when his Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement. This move was two years before Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis by a white supremacist. It was only three years after Gov. George Wallace, back in Aaron’s native Alabama, had proclaimed to a cheering crowd “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” before he blocked entrance to the University of Alabama for Black students.
Under a bright national spotlight, Aaron neared breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in the summer of 1973. He began getting bags of hate mail and death threats from those who could not tolerate a Black man surpassing a White man’s record. He had to endure the hate and threats over the ensuing off season before breaking the record the next spring in a game in Atlanta versus the Dodgers. The threats continued long after he broke the record. I can only try to imagine how difficult that must have been for Aaron and his family.
Many people would have met the enormous hate and venom he encountered with reciprocating hatred and bitterness. Aaron did not. He continued on as he always had: living, speaking, and acting with quiet grace, kindness, generosity, and civility. Unlike many sports icons, he never let us down, never incited hate, anger, or division. Instead, he used his fame and status to inspire others to live together peacefully and to create opportunities for everyone. In speaking about his parents in his later life, he credited them for building his character and resilience. He thanked them for teaching him the golden rule, saying that he always tried to abide by that standard. He preached that rule by his actions.
Unlike some wealthy celebrities, Henry Aaron lived below his means. He used both his fame and his wealth to inspire and help others. He started a foundation that supported the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Undoubtably, he was thinking of how he could help poor and disadvantaged children – just as he had been back in Mobile – to enjoy the many benefits of sports.
Not college educated himself, he appreciated the power of education to enrich people’s lives and to create opportunity, prosperity, and social mobility. He donated both substantial funds and substantial time to fund-raising for the United Negro College Fund. He and his wife made a multi-million dollar grant to the historically Black Morehouse School of Medicine to help educate more Black physicians. He created and funded scholarships at lesser-known colleges too like the Atlanta Technical College, which largely serves economically disadvantaged populations of Black Atlantans and is located near the site of his record-breaking home run that spring night in 1974. Former Atlanta Mayor, UN Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young once said that Aaron gave away more money to help others than he ever made as a baseball player.
At a time that is overdue for healing in our society, we can be inspired by Henry Aaron’s example. We can honor his life by using it as a model for ourselves to be contributors to a society of greater civility, justice, and opportunities.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
Hank Aaron fought racism the way he played: Quietly but with power.
Jan 22, 2021
How Hank Aaron used his legendary status to help others
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Atlanta Journal Constitution