From the first time I cradled a Louisville Slugger, I was hooked. There was something immensely captivating about gripping the barrel of that perfectly crafted stick. It was a portal whose ability to transform a gangly eleven year old into one of his heroes was the reason I fell in love with the national pastime across one baseball summer.
Batting stances, they were my thing. I loved collecting them, like so many trading cards. There were scores of funky batting stances going on in the MLB, and each one facilitated a wholly different experience when you tried it on for size . From Doug DeCinces’ back to the pitcher pose to Brian Downing doing just the opposite. There was Don Baylor’s “Royal Guard” and Mickey Rivers hunched over pose which was always followed with a baton flip of his bat on a swing and miss. And of course, there was the imitable Rod Carew. The legendary batsman didn’t swing a bat so much as wave a magic wand when he stepped into the box. His was the maestro serve to the pitcher’s volley and his talent for readjusting the spin of a pitcher’s meanest choice was nothing short of mystical.
Hank Aaron had retired by the time I started following the game in the spring of 1978. All I had to go on when referencing his mighty swing were black and white photos of his time with the Milwaukee Braves and of course, his record breaking smack against Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers; the night when Vin Scully tucked the great man’s opus into the record books for posterity. The night when Babe Ruth doffed his cap and ceded his crown to a black man from the deep south.
Of course, it was never that easy for Aaron. I didn’t know of the struggles he endured as he made his way through the Negro Leagues and into the minor league system of professional baseball. I had no idea as to the scathing hatred he faced on a daily basis, both in the stands and in his own dugout. And I hadn’t yet learned about the nightmarish proposition he faced in the time before and after breaking the all time MLB home-run record: The letters threatening his life and the lives of his family if he dared break Ruth’s record.
All I knew was that Hank Aaron’s swing was a forever kind of deal, with the way he turned a baseball bat into a hammer sent down from the baseball Gods. His swing was crisp and lean, no fat. It was workmanlike in nature until the barrel hit the gas pedal and formed a chemical compound with that fiery pill, blasting it into the deep blue sky. It could be said that Hank Aaron recruited more astronauts than NASA, because every single fan who watched his orbit was transported to the stars.
Hank Aaron and that mighty swing passed in to the ether last week. It was a swing borne of a great American dream, hard earned and complicated. A swing whose brilliance served as a master’s course for baseball fans everywhere. And it was the swing that produced 755 career home runs, which was the MLB record when he retired from the game.
In my eyes, it still is.