The Main Street Conservative Wisdom of Hank Aaron
In early August, my father-in-law and I attended a Braves-Reds game at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. The game itself was an anamnesis of the American civic liturgy, a contest between baseball’s first openly all-professional team (the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings) and its oldest continuously operating franchise (originally called the Boston Red Caps). A long rain delay (which eventually turned into a rain out) forced the two of us down into Monument Garden, where the Braves honor their heroes of yesteryear. And none earn more accolades than the great Henry “Hank” Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1974.
Reading selected quotations from Aaron, I was struck by how well he understood many of the truths of Main Street conservatism (even if he has a history of strongly criticizing the GOP!).
The most striking quotation of Aaron’s in Monument Garden reads: “What you do with your life and how you do it is not only a reflection on you, but on your family and all of those institutions that have helped to make you who you are.” Even if Aaron is a critic of conservatives, this statement reflects a deep appreciation for the role of tradition. It stands contra dominant strands of thinking in liberalism and libertarianism, which view individual persons as autonomous units of self-definition disconnected from their histories and formative institutions. In truth, we are all products of our nation, our culture, our family, our religion, our school. Our lives, in turn, should honor the legacies of those who have gone before us, who labored and bled to map out the routes by which we are able to succeed and flourish.
Aaron appreciated the value of tradition in both American history and baseball. In reference to Ruth, he once declared: “I don’t want them to forget Ruth; I just want them to remember me.” This is a remarkable statement of humility coming from a man who in 1973 received a plaque from the U.S. Postal Service for receiving more mail (930,000 pieces) than any other person excluding politicians. Much of it was hate-filled, castigating a black man for attempting to break a white man’s record, and someone so egregiously belittled by bigots might be tempted in turn to ridicule the legacy of “old white men.” Aaron instead took the higher road, recognizing himself as but one player in a long tradition that far transcended his own accomplishments. He even offered his congratulations to steroid user Barry Bonds when Bonds surpassed him as the career home-run leader in 2007. Indeed, while Aaron held that record, he said: “I’m hoping someday that some kid, black or white, will hit more home runs than myself. Whoever it is, I’d be pulling for him.”
Aaron also understands the central role of virtue in a life well-lived. One of his most famous quotations is “Consistency is what counts; you have to be able to do things over and over again.” He certainly exemplified that consistency with his 24-time all-star appearances, 15 seasons with at least 30 home runs, and an incredible lifetime .305 batting average. As Aaron explained: “I came to the Braves on business, and I intended to see that business was good as long as I could.” Yet consistency is also central to Thomistic virtue ethics, which holds that virtues are habits of action that are strengthened with consistent use. Excellence in all things is also a feature of ancient virtue catechesis, one Aaron exemplified in declaring that baseball should not be fundamentally about breaking records but about playing to one’s best potential. His virtue is reflected in his mature understanding of failure, surprising given that many men in his position would have been blinded from introspection by success. But Aaron posits, “Failure is a part of success. There is no such thing as a bed of roses all your life. But failure will never stand in the way of success if you learn from it.”
After his baseball career, Aaron had other great successes, both as a businessman—owning many car dealerships and a chain of restaurants—and as a philanthropist. This stemmed from his work ethic, his deep sense of patriotism, and his religious beliefs. He has asserted: “I am very proud to be an American. This country has so much potential, I’d just like to see things better…and I think it will be.” Shortly before breaking Ruth’s record, he discussed his faith:
I need to depend on Someone who is bigger, stronger and wiser than I am. I don’t do it on my own. God is my strength. He gave me a good body and some talent and the freedom to develop it. He helps me when things go wrong. He forgives me when I fall on my face. He lights the way.
In that same vein, Aaron approached the racism of his day with a humble yet confident ethic of excellence, rather than vain bat flipping. “There’s only one way to break the color line,” he said at the time. “Be good. I mean, play good. Play so good that they can’t remember what color you were before the season started.”
When I was a kid growing up in Virginia, I cheered for the Braves (there was no D.C. team at the time, and I didn’t want to support my father’s team, the Baltimore Orioles, who—I could never understand why—were named after a bird). I chose the Braves in part because they were always on TBS as “America’s Team,” in part because I loved their uniforms and name, and in part because the first baseball card I ever owned was of Tom Glavine, one of the three Hall of Fame starting pitchers of the Braves’ unrivaled years of success in the 1990s. But my adoration of the Braves reached new heights when I learned of their storied past, exemplified in such men as Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn, and, of course, Hank Aaron. As a kid, I devoured multiple books about “Hammerin’ Hank” and his incredible successes on the field.
All these years later, my baseball allegiances have changed. I’ve given my heart and many tears to the Nationals since they came to town in 2005…and I’m wise enough now to appreciate the nearby venerable Orioles. Yet visiting my now-nemesis Atlanta, it’s comforting to know that some of our nation’s most prolific athletes, like Aaron, have also been men of great wisdom and integrity. We need more American athletes like him, who perceive not only the importance of traditions, but seek to continue them for future generations. Indeed, as Aaron once declared: “We need to be concerned about young people…if we don’t protect them, how are we going to protect this country?”
Casey Chalk is pursuing a graduate degree in theology from Christendom College and is senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.