By Vernon A. Williams
The transition of sports hero, legend and activist Henry “Hammering Hank” Aaron last week was a pleasant reminder of my lifetime love for baseball – affectionately adopted as the national pastime.
My first major league game was in the third grade when Gary Cub Scout Pack 8 took a field trip to the storied Wrigley Field – one of the oldest, most revered, and tradition-laden ballparks in the history of the game.
It was magical. The visiting San Francisco Giants roster included future Hall of Famers Willie Mays (considered the best to ever play), first baseman Willie McCovey, left fielder Orlando Cepeda, and pitcher Juan Marichal, whose unconventional high-kick pitching style would be imitated for the rest of my youth.
It was the same season (Cousin) Billy Williams was named rookie of the year, while two-time Most Valuable Player and legend Ernie Banks was earning “Mr. Cub” status with a fourth straight year of more than 40 home runs smashed.
After seeing live superstars that I previously had only seen on television – I was hooked. Any chance that I got to play, watch or listen to baseball was instant euphoria. But that would be my last visit to Wrigley for years, as I switched allegiance to the South Side Chicago White Sox.
Much closer to where I grew up in Gary, Comiskey Park at 35th and Shields just felt more like home. And since I had dual loyalty to the New York Yankees (it’s a long story), it gave me a chance to see my two favorite teams compete. The Cubs were in the National League and wouldn’t play the American League “Bronx Bombers.”
There was one particular White Sox-Yankees game that would be remembered forever.
I was only 12 years old when my nephew Bobby and I took the “L” (Chicago’s elevated trains) from my sister Ramona’s place on 65th and King Drive to White Sox Park. It was a great game. When it was over, we ran out and waited for Yankee players to board their team bus – anxiously anticipating autograph opportunities.
Most exited the stadium to the bus without acknowledging excited youngsters flanking their walkway. Seeing that futility, I looked for and found an open bus window. I decided to try another tactic.
Sitting next to that window was famed Yankee radio-TV announcer Joe Garagiola. With nothing to lose, I tiptoed close, holding the game program in my outstretched hand, asking politely for his autograph.
Garagiola obliged and handed it back to me. Suddenly I had another inspiration and asked him if he would mind letting a few players sitting close to him also sign my program book. His rebuff was abrupt. He shoved the book into my hand and scolded with a scowl. “Here’s my autograph kid. Take it or leave it.”
I eased the book into my jacket pocket unable to conceal the disappointment. I meant no disrespect and just thought my request was worth a try since the bus would not be leaving for minutes. Apparently, I overstepped my bounds.
Then I heard a gruff voice with a Spanish accent say, “Little man.” I looked up and it was Yankee pitcher Hector Lopez sitting a row behind Garagiola. He reached out his window and said, “Give me the book.” It was in his hand in a microsecond. He first signed his name on the cover, then passed it to a dozen other teammates who he convinced to do the same.
He handed it back to me right about the time the driver was closing the door and gunning up the engine to pull off. I thanked him profusely for his unexpected kindness. He smiled and gave me the “thumbs up” as the bus left.
In my young mind, all was right with the world. Lopez changed a disastrous experience for a child, whose complexion mirrored his own, and turned it into an immediate, lasting lifetime lesson; one of how Black people must look out for one another. It was a lesson never relinquished.
Sports giants have traditionally served as part of the role model spectrum for African American children. That includes parents, teachers, preachers, business folk, professionals, entrepreneurs and so many from the local to the national levels who comprise “The Village.”
To be certain, no one in sports or any walk of life exuded more resolve, focus, integrity, character or love for people – all people, but especially his own – than Hank Aaron. He embodied class and excellence on and off the field.
Aaron was relentless in his quest to be best, even facing hatred and death threats. At no point did he allow his voice to be silenced or compromised. His performance on the field, and his unyielding stands taken long after retirement, made a lasting impact.
Well done, good and faithful servant.