The Triumph of the Outcast

COMMENTARY: All great stories are counter-cultural. And all great stories are usually best appreciated in retrospect.

Hank Aaron arrives at the 2017 Andrew Young International Leadership Awards at Philips Arena on June 3, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Hank Aaron arrives at the 2017 Andrew Young International Leadership Awards at Philips Arena on June 3, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (photo: Chris McKay / Getty)

On Jan. 22, 2021, a date of special significance for pro-lifers, legendary baseball player Hank Aaron died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86. Less known to the public than his impressive batting statistics was the strength he drew from his Catholic faith. 

In 1959, while he was playing with the Milwaukee Braves, Aaron and his family converted to Catholicism partly due to his friendship with an influential priest, Father Michael Sablica of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, an early pioneer for racial justice in Milwaukee. Aaron credited Father Sablica for helping him grow as a person in the 1950s, when baseball often reflected the kind of prejudice and racism that was rampant in the South.

Aaron was said to be a frequent reader of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, which he kept in his locker. He also kept a copy of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s Catholic booklet The Life of Christ in his glove compartment. 

“I need to depend on Someone who is bigger, stronger and wiser than I am,” he said. “I don’t do it on my own. God is my strength. He gave me a good bound 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.”

Aaron, however, did not remain a Catholic throughout his life. He became a Baptist with his second marriage. His funeral service took place at the Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta.

In his definitive autobiography, I Had a Hammer, Aaron recounts an incident in his father’s life that, in retrospect, gives his own life a parabolic quality. It parallels the parable about the stone that the builders rejected which became a cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). 

It was 1928. Hank’s dad, a gifted athlete in his own right, wanted to watch the great Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, who was playing in an exhibition game in Mobile, Alabama. Herbert Aaron was a poor Black living in an environment where racial tensions were particularly intense. 

In order to witness the game, he climbed a tree that overlooked the park. He swore that he saw Ruth hit a home run that landed into the coal car of a passing train. The ball was not retrieved until it arrived in New Orleans. As he watched from his precarious perch, like Zacchaeus from a tree (Luke 19:1-10), little could he have suspected or imagined that the day would come when his own son would break the Bambino’s career home-run record.

On the night of April 8, 1974, the improbable became a reality. On that date — voted by baseball fans across the country as the most memorable event in baseball history — Herbert Aaron’s son, who was born on the day before Ruth’s 39th birthday, who wore No. 44 and had hit exactly 44 home runs in four separate seasons, hit the second pitch thrown by Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers (who also wore No. 44) into the left-field bullpen for his 715th round-tripper, thereby breaking Babe Ruth’s seemingly unsurpassable record of 714. He was greeted at home plate by his father and his mother, Estella, who embraced him in her protective arms.

That night, 53,755 fans were in attendance in the Atlanta stadium while an estimated 35 million watched the event on television. Perhaps legendary announcer Vin Scully best captured the significance of the event in stating, “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

Putting Henry Louis Aaron’s life in perspective, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement on behalf of the Aaron family, “Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia's greatest legends. His life and career made history, and his influence was felt not only in the world of sports, but far beyond — through his important work to advance civil rights and create a more equal, just society. We ask all Georgians to join us in praying for his fans, family, and loved ones as we remember Hammerin’ Hank’s incredible legacy.”

Henry Aaron was selected to the All-Star Game 25 times. He won a “Most Valuable Player Award,” hit 20 or more home runs 20 times, finished his career with Major League records in runs batted in (2,229), total bases 6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477). He won three Gold Gloves and twice led the National League in batting average. 

The Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and awards for his work in improving race relations are listed among his numerous off-the-field awards. Not bad for a person who, in his younger years, could not afford a bat or a ball and had to resort to hitting bottle caps with a stick. 

All in all, this is a great story. Yet it is set in the context of an even greater story. Long ago in Bethlehem, a father was denied entrance at an inn. There was no room for him there. His Son, the King of Peace, far surpassing the wisdom of the poor innkeeper, ultimately broke all the barriers that keep social classes alienated from each other. It is the prototypic story of the outcast who turns out to be a bearer of the transcendent. We should not weep for our outcast state, for it may be the first step to a great story.

All great stories are countercultural. And all great stories are usually best appreciated in retrospect. We are blinded by the moment and are unable to see what is slowly unfolding. 

But what are the great stories that are unfolding at the moment? What are the barriers that today’s heroes are now unceremoniously crossing? What is the urgent message that the world now needs to hear? God and his providential care remains in control. We should live patiently and with hope.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut.