My younger brother Brian was gifted with more athletic prowess than I was. I ran cross country and track, as well as played soccer up through high school ... but never demonstrated any real talent for baseball, basketball or football. I still throw like a girl. Perhaps that contributed to Dad never really wanting to spend time at many sporting events. But on each of those rare occasions that we did go, those memories are tattooed on my brain.
At age 10, Dad took my brother and me to a Braves Bat Game Day. Not sure if the MLB franchises still practice this easy marketing ploy, but at the end of each game, on your way out of the stadium, there were barrels of free Louisville Slugger baseball bats, each autographed by favored and more famous players. Brian selected a bat sporting the signature of Rico Carty. I was fortunate to draw my slugger signed by already legendary homerun king, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.
I would meet Mr. Aaron a few years later at a Braves publicity event during the Ted Turner ownership years, and again when he transitioned to baseball executive and entrepreneur in Atlanta’s Olympic era and since. Decades have passed, and that Henry Aaron bat morphed into a family heirloom, and later homestead protector, to be most often brandished for checking out things that go “bump in the night” versus any batting practice.
More recently, life and circumstances would grant me a brief moment with the Hammer. As COVID-19 ravages the globe, miraculous vaccines now offer a way to slow if not eventually curtail the spread of this killer virus.
It was into these waters strode Hammerin’ Hank — Mr. Aaron, and his beloved wife Billye, who are also philanthropists and major donors. The pair formed a private foundation, the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which has donated millions to fund scholarships and major gifts to numerous charities and institutions of higher learning.
On Jan. 5, 2021, the Morehouse Healthcare Clinic at the Morehouse School of Medicine was the site of vaccinations for several Civil Rights legends and African-American giants of their day and field, each over the age of 75, rolling up their sleeves and taking their shot ... in part to demonstrate its safety and efficacy to the broader population, and particularly aimed at skeptical communities of Black and brown.
Interviewed a few days after his first inoculation, the longtime Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer said, “I’m 80-something — there’s not much I can do to help.”
Aaron arrived on a scooter, alongside Civil Rights legend and former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. It was a day of giants, including the founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Louis Sullivan, and his wife who also received the vaccine along with other prominent pastors and leaders of the movement that day.
I was able to have a brief chat with The Hammer, and I mentioned that I had brought along a special keepsake that I wanted to show him, as well as ask a small favor. Aaron smiled and readily agreed, and I presented that Louisville Slugger, and a Sharpie marker. He smiled, gave the 50-year-old bat a spin, and ran his hand down along the grain, and across his earlier etched in signature, and then, he signed it again.
I now am the proud owner of a twin-signed Hammerin’ Hank Aaron Louisville Slugger, with signatures 50 years and a few inches apart. I could not know that Hank’s time left leading by example, as he was again doing that day, was short.
His final Tweet to his fans, later that same day said, “I was proud to get the COVID-19 vaccine earlier today at the Morehouse School of Medicine. I hope you do the same.”
Two and a half weeks later, Mrs. Aaron would find her husband had peacefully passed in his sleep on Jan. 22 at the age of 86. The Fulton County medical examiner ruled his death from natural causes, and there were no COVID-19 symptoms.
We have two twin grandsons now in my family, the Mighty Mites, just over 4 months old. They know nothing as yet of baseball, bats, or great American heroes ... but the wall of their bedroom is going to sport a twin-signature bat, of America’s home run king ... and I can’t quite wait ‘til they are old enough to attend their first Braves game. We may take along the bat ... seems a fitting way to continue to honor and remember that moment with Hammerin’ Hank.