Smile for a Saturday
I didn’t want this time of year to pass by on Steady without at least a mention of a subject near and dear to my heart: baseball.
I know that sports is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I hope that even non-fans will indulge me with an opportunity to reflect on what to me will always be our National Pastime, even though the game no longer has the hold it once did on the national consciousness.
It’s been a little over a week since the opening of the Major League Baseball season. Some teams have started strong, while others have faltered. The chiding and good-natured ribbing between friends and family who have different allegiances have begun. There will be no shortage of elation and heartbreak in the months that follow.
This time of year also marks the anniversary of one of the most important milestones in baseball history: Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. It took place in Atlanta on April 8, 1974. And as we will get to later, it has inspired this week’s Smile for a Saturday.
But first I wanted to go back to much more recent history and share an excerpt from a Steady post that explains a bit more of what baseball means to me. At the time this was originally published a year ago, there were deep questions about how the pandemic would affect the MLB season, after cutting the previous one to just a fraction of its scheduled games. This year, there are few such questions, even though the coronavirus remains — and for that we should be grateful.
While I appreciate baseball's important chapters in the country’s larger narrative, the reasons it will always be my most cherished sport are deeply personal. There I am as a young child, sitting with my father at the minor league Buffs Stadium in Houston. I don't just see the bright green grass, shining diamond, and languid young men effortlessly playing catch before the game to warm up — I can still smell the scene. There was a bread factory beyond the outfield fence and a train track running near it. And on those heavy summer afternoons the smell of the turf mixed with a yeasty aroma and the smoke of the passing locomotives — as well as whatever combination of concessions and beverages the fathers and sons sitting around us were enjoying. I have never met a rose that for me will smell so sweet.
My father loved baseball, and sharing and teaching the game to me was a way for a reserved man to express his love. I took the lessons to heart and was eager to pass it along to my own children and later my grandsons. Neither of my grandsons met my father in person, and yet when I sit with them in the stands, I feel I am knitting a bond across the generations.
I’m thinking a lot about family, and connections, and gathering, and the simple joys of life that have been torn from us during this pandemic. One of the reasons I love baseball so much is that it approximates life. The season is long. Each game has its drama, even each pitch. But success is measured over time, we see winning streaks and losing streaks, the best batters fail most of the time, the best teams often still lose. It’s all a game, but the lessons of the importance of perseverance, resilience, and being steady are there for those who seek them.
And few players in baseball history taught these lessons better than Hank Aaron. When he passed in January 2021, we lost a man of incredible talent and inspiration, on and off the field.
For our Smile for a Saturday, I want to go back to that moment in time when Aaron surpassed Ruth. Many of you have likely seen the clip, or at least photos of Aaron rounding the bases with two teenage fans running after him. But recently we came across an extended clip with the legendary Vin Scully (still with us at age 94) making the call.
Listening to the moment in larger context, hearing Scully remark what it meant for a Black man — one who had started his career in the Negro Leagues — to break the record of a white sports hero, recognizing all the injustices and abuse Aaron had to face in his career and his life, thinking of where we were then, and where we are now, of the progress made and the journey yet to go, all led to a wistful smile on our faces. This was such a triumph, by such a good, kind-hearted man, in a state where slavery and Jim Crow once reigned, and where we are still fighting battles over power, inclusion, and equality.
Breaking a record like this cannot be done in a day. It takes years and years of excellence. It is one of the great lessons of baseball, the grind and sacrifice that success requires. It isn’t true for just the game. It is true for life. And that triumphing is possible, is a reason to smile indeed.