Hank Aaron – quiet dignity, quiet strength

A great baseball player passed away yesterday. His name was Henry Aaron, but he went by Hank. He was a very quiet man growing up in the south in the middle of the Jim Crow era. But, arguably he is on a very short list of the greatest baseball players ever.

Rather than bore non-baseball fans with endless statistics indicating how great he was, let me focus on how poorly this African-American was treated as he chased records set by white ball players. He received multiple death threats and family kidnapping threats and was openly called the N word both aloud and within the many letters of vicious hate mail.

Like Jackie Robinson before him, he took all of this with quiet dignity and a heavy dose of quiet strength. Racism and bigotry was dumped on this man like garbage. But, he stood strong.

When he chased the greatest of records for home runs held by the legendary Babe Ruth, the threats were at their worst. Yet, when he broke the record on national TV, he quietly ran the bases. Then, he tipped his cap to the home crowd. Ironically, a teen came out of the stands to circle the bases with him, but he was all about touching all the bases first.

When we think of the white supremacists and nationalists who have crawled out from under the rocks, I think of all the great Black ball players who came before Robinson and Aaron that did not get the chance to play in the Major Leagues. When they were allowed to join, the Major Leagues got better.

To show how racism impacts results, the National League integrated faster than the American League, so when All Star games were played in the late 1950s and 1960s, the National League had an impressive win streak against its annual opponent. Taking this one step further, the Boston Red Sox had an opportunity to sign both Aaron and Willie Mays, arguably the two best ball players, and signed neither because they were Black. The Red Sox had a long dry spell of winning championships.

Hank Aaron received the Medal of Freedom for his success, but also for the manner in which he carried himself. Quiet dignity and strength. He did not boast. He just succeeded when too many did not want him to.

Quiet heroes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the invisible people at work that quietly go about their business and don’t strain their arms patting themselves on the back. It got me thinking about public figures who do their work in a dignified manner, not calling attention unnecessarily to what they do. Permit me to highlight a few.

In tennis, the bad boys of tennis seem to get the notoriety. These are the ones that throw tantrums, racquets, and verbal abuses of line judges. Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe could be quite the jerks on the tennis court and no one should emulate that part of their game. On the better side, Arthur Ashe was a class act as well as being an excellent player. The same could be said for Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer who seem to go about their business in a professional manner. These last four each have had more success, but they also achieved it without being a jerk on the court.

In football, it seems a player needs to draw attention to each good play they make, yet seem to be silent when they screw up. It need not be that way. Herschel Walker may have been the most gifted college athlete to ever play and was a very good pro player. Yet, when he made it to the end zone, he acted like he had been there before. He was not big into histrionics as it was not his nature. I also recall the time he was out jogging and he came upon a couple who had wrecked their car and the doors were jammed. Walker came up and after learning of their dilemma, ripped the door off the hinges, so they could get out. Once he confirmed they were alright and the police were on their way, off he went. He never made a big deal of it until a reporter later got the story and confirmed its truth.

In baseball, many know the Jackie Robinson story as the first African-American major league player and, if you don’t, please check out the movie “42” which came out last year. And, many may also know the name Hank Aaron, who before the steroid era allowed another player to pass his record, he had hit more home runs than any other player, including Babe Ruth. But, as the African-American Aaron was chasing Ruth’s record, the death threats mounted. It was similar to Robinson’s plight in 1947. Aaron always carried himself with a quiet grace and dignity. He did not brag much about his prowess and the tremendous Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, seemed to get more notoriety. But, in the end, neither Mays or Mantle could come close to Aaron’s records.

In politics, the narcissistic group tends to draw attention to themselves. The first rule of being a Governor or Mayor is to show up whenever there is a business opening, relocation or groundbreaking, even if you have little to do with the event occurring. But, the people who come to mind that served with quiet grace include folks like President Jimmy Carter, Senator Bob Dole, Ambassador Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State and General Colin Powell, NC Governor Jim Martin and new Senator Elizabeth Warren to name only a few. None of these folks are without faults, but they seemed to go about their business in a very gracious and professional manner.

I mention these stories, not to say you have to be less exuberant. You do not get to the positions these people have held without being confident. As a former manager of people, I have witnessed and shared with others, the more arrogant you are, the less team-oriented you are, the more difficult to tolerate you are, then you better be that much better. Because if you are not, most people will not tolerate your BS too long. Steve Jobs could be one of the biggest jerks around, but he was tolerated as he was showing people a new path forward. Yet, many chose not to work with him. The ones who had success seemed to have experience in “handling” his moods and condescension.

You can be quite accomplished in your endeavors without being a jerk. The people I mentioned are all very talented and successful people. So, my suggestion is to be confident, but work well others and share credit. Be a class act and good things will happen. And, per an earlier blog post, do not mistake kindness for weakness.