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i had a Hammer by Hank Aaron with Lonnie…

i had a Hammer (original 1991; edition 1992)

by Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler

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307283,968 (3.77)21
The saga of "Hammerin' Hank," who broke Babe Ruth's homerun record and continued to play baseball despite the racism surrounding him and the sport. Awards: YALSA Best Book for Young Adults.
Title:i had a Hammer
Authors:Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler
Info:Harper (1992), Unknown Binding
Collections:Your library

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I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story by Hank Aaron (1991)


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I think it’s teachable or whatever that Henry’s mother didn’t think he should play baseball; it’s very cultural. On the one hand, girls then and even now aren’t encouraged to play sports; they’re dissuaded from it, and what you don’t have you can’t really appreciate. Second, the whole aspect of beat-down acceptance went the other way—Henry should “go to school” or whatever, and any sort of body education is not that, right, because especially then and even now the white man’s way is more normative than something that the Black man might with more conceptual easiness ease into, right. The body is a drag, and fingerprint analysis or something like that—wow! Why can’t you do that, homeboy?

…. I had heard of walking meditation of course, but I remember the first time I heard that a workout could be like a meditation, or mentally restful, at least; I got that idea from Obama, but I didn’t know what to do with that idea, so to speak—it was just a little odd, I guess. But now I would say that even watching or listening to a sporting event can be like a guided meditation, you know…. I don’t tend to ‘root’ for someone or get all beer dad about it, you know; I just want to see good baseball, or good tennis or basketball or whatever. Usually when one side starts to win, I hope that they’ll continue to win, unless I actually know something about and like one of the active participants, which isn’t usual in the team sports right…. There’s certainly nothing wrong with team sports; they are a little more impersonal, but I don’t want to be too ‘perfect’ you know, about golf and tennis, right; although maybe I’ll look into golf too I don’t know. I just don’t buy the whole clan war aspect of team sports, like we’re woad raiders or something; identifying with the uniform and the costume, right. Of course, I just watch this stuff online; I guess if I were watching in real time I would be more bound to the New York region, you know. Still, you know what I mean. If a guy can play he can play; it’s no business of mine who cuts the check and all that business stuff. Which is fine, but that’s far from my interest in baseball and sport, right…. I guess that’s my liberal view of sport, but I guess parts of it began in my schizophrenic/irrational period. (In my childhood I was very much a woad raider for the New York Yankees, and I also went through a no-sport period.) I was into tennis, but when I watched, I just kinda wanted the game, or the set, or whatever—I didn’t sit through a whole match then, just like I don’t watch whole movies or games now, all at once, I mean, although I certainly watched whole movies then, sometimes one after another…. Anyway, I just wanted the point to end, because I was so ill I was just trying to survive each meaningless (although spooky) succession of events in my life of suffering, you know. I don’t know why I bring that up; but I remember.

…. Anyway, I try not to shame people—that’s my intent, anyway—but this thing itself, if not any person or even group, is shameful: how we educate people who are more physical than intellectual; we just force them to get over and knuckle down and submit—often preparing them for a life in which they must knuckle down and submit, although not always: sometimes they can end up doing more than people who know about the Greeks, which is certainly what education was about back then. It was like if you didn’t know Ancient Greek you were a bad person and deserved to be kept under, right. (And Black people doubly so.) Which is ironic, considering how few books existed in the ancient world and how few people read any, ever, and how often people spent the day running around from dawn to dusk under the Greek sun out-of-doors, you know. But they were the Greeks!

…. And there was racism. Now, many people might think on some level, you know, I don’t think that blackpeople are beautiful or smart, but I’ll say, they’re good at singing and sport! —And the next person says, you know: Well, I don’t like to see no blackman sing blackmusic, or any music—but I’ll watch him play baseball, any day! But back in the 50s, especially in the South, they did NOT want to see no blackman play no baseball with the /white man/, you know.

It’s a struggle of love, but everything they have, they’ve had to struggle for, you know.

…. And it’s true that the fans of the 1950s were very earnest in their appreciation of baseball and the athletes who played it in their relatively small-town part of America, you know; they were simple people, not above being pleased. They were also very race conscious, nervous about the Negroes, of course.

…. I respect sports as the low-tech fantasy world, and as the alternate reality where things are sometimes fair, but I wonder how much of the dead thinking of the age creeps into the average sportscaster, you know. I listened to the entire seven game 1957 World Series radio broadcast on YouTube recently, and growing up I imagined myself to have learned something about baseball history, but all I learned were what the names sounded like, or looked like. No personality, no intuition, no life, just facts, and the dead spirit of the age, in the average sportscaster. To be fair to them, it’s probably what a lot of sports fans like about the whole thing. Sports can be powerful healthy for the mind, but many sports guys are mighty unhinged in the way they talk about sports, or, just to other people, you know. Like they found a hole they can crawl into, and they wanna make sure nobody and nothing gets in it and fills it up, you know.

…. “Patience—which is really the art of waiting—is something you pick up pretty naturally when you grow up black in Alabama. When you wait all your life for respect and equality and a seat in the front of the bus, it’s nothing to wait a little while for a slider inside.”

…. This might trigger somebody’s factoid warning, but I’m reading this book about soccer, and it actually says that it took until the 1800s for the rules of soccer to be laid out formally, even though people played many soccer-like games in the Middle Ages, because for hundreds of years playing literally any sport at all basically was literally illegal if you were a commoner. Everyone’s life was supposed to be swallowed up by duty—either you’re working/farming, training with military weapons, or maybe praying/doing the hair shirt bop, right. There was no room for anybody to do something that brought them enjoyment. And even in the 20th century, you can still see how it was far from a shoo-in, even for Hank Aaron—it wasn’t like you flagged the kid early in life as having physical intelligence, and a worth comparable to a computer or car designer or something, you know. It was literally a case where, even as one of the most successful baseball players, he often couldn’t eat with or be in public with the white baseball players because he was Black, you know. Not only was midcentury society still at the top defending the “Anglo” or whatever sphere of the white male intellectual against the encroachment of Black sports/entertainment, baseball land itself was anxious that the National League was becoming ~too dark~ and they’d promote a marginal white player from the minor leagues before an equivalent Black player so it would go easier on the eyes of the poor white male ‘rulers’ of baseball land, you know.

It’s a lot. Henry was successful because he took it; nobody even wanted the Black man to have a seat at the sports table in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, you know—and you know society can keep improving, because otherwise it’s stuck with marvels of idiocy and hate, you know; that’s the slimy pit we’re climbing out of.

…. Even aside from the whole Dear (Epithet), mail, it’s weird how much of the mail is like, you know, there can never be another home run hitter like Homer, another gospel like Paul’s, right—it’s not enough to know the past, to respect past accomplishments; it’s like the present is a threat to the past, and we’ve gotta defend the past from the present, right. I wonder if we’ve made any progress in letting people be inspired by the past, while still living their own lives. Wouldn’t that be nice.

…. It’s not random, since I intentionally chose to have my first goosecap baseball book be about a Black ball player, but it is strange—such a Dear (Epithet) kind of book especially as it reaches its climax, but now I have my car so I’m starting to believe in, I don’t know, freedom truth and the American way, and I don’t know: it was so hard to see anything but the ‘dear epithet’ stuff before, but now I’m reading about sports, in a way, if there is such a thing, and—right? Isn’t it okay sometimes? Isn’t there life in America and isn’t baseball okay sometimes?

(shrugs) We don’t teach people about //how to have fun// playing baseball and making money and all the rest of it, so sometimes even these great people don’t experience it as fun…. A lot of times we dump the baby and keep the bath water, you know.

But there are also these great people, and they hit home runs, you know.

…. I mean, baseball is pretty good; it says something about this country that we have our own sports, but, at the same time,in between those two extremes—the pure joy and the dead epithet letters—is that ‘baseball tradition’ thing, always ready to argue about things that don’t matter, as if that stupid Yankees trumpet song were Everybody’s song, you know, always ready to argue and summon the baseball bureaucrats to scold and fine people and lecture people about the integrity of fun, and I’m sure that 5% of it is necessary, but not the majority, you know, it’s just…. Old Man Custom scattering the goslings on his way to Troll-Home, you know. It’s like, just play the damn game and get the sticks out of yer ass, if it’s so important to you, that you’re Not British, right.

…. Even little white boys who love Babe Ruth have egos, but it is funny on all sides, and often not very boyish; it’s like—how many games do you need to play, before you feel happy?

…. To kinda circle back to the beginning, not only is physical intelligence valued less—because Black guys have it—but the other end of sports intelligence, directing physicality, coaching; it’s like—we don’t think that Black guys can do it. (Even the guys who don’t read Shakespeare don’t think that Blacks are intelligent.) And it’s sad, and I don’t think that it can go on and on being like that, forever. But for now, the Black guy has an extra barrier in between him and his victory, you know.

…. Although, sure, on the other side of it, there probably were some KKK guys who watched Hank Aaron play baseball—and rooted for him, too.

…. Sometimes, of course. Sometimes.

…. And, more broadly, baseball should change. Growing up, I was supposed to believe in baseball—not just that it was a great sport or something; no, you were just supposed to Believe In Baseball, like a heresy-hunter looks at religion or something. There are just so many issues with that.

…. The games men play are always always changing.
  goosecap | Jul 30, 2023 |
Years before Henry Aaron was even born, before Babe Ruth himself had finalized the career home run record it was Aaron’s fate to challenge, his father had scoped out the dimensions of what lay ahead. In 1928, Herbert Aaron climbed a tree to see the Babe play at Mobile’s Hartwell Field and swore “he saw Ruth hit a ball into the coal car of a train and they didn’t retrieve the ball until the train pulled into New Orleans.”

As much as Aaron’s exploits are inevitably associated with the near-mythic Ruth, experts from the era when Hank became a star thought his hitting style most resembled that of Rogers Hornsby, a hitter who with Honus Wagner and Stan Musial was one of the three greatest National League batters of the era before major-league baseball allowed black players on its fields. Hornsby was second only to Ty Cobb in lifetime batting average, and if Aaron had possessed less talent for slugging he might have challenged Ty’s hits record instead. But Aaron was beyond category. A famous quote, variously recorded by history, had it that “trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Written with Lonnie Wheeler, Hank Aaron’s I Had a Hammer gives baseball fans an interesting story of his life. And having myself been in the left field seats for one of his 755 dingers, I am glad to have found out what made it all possible.

Note: I’ve read that Howard Bryant’s biography of Aaron, published 19 years after this book, claims it’s a myth Hank batted cross-handed when young. But in I Had a Hammer Aaron himself says he did. I know which book I’m believing. ( )
  dypaloh | Jun 8, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Aaron, Hankprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wheeler, Lonniesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The saga of "Hammerin' Hank," who broke Babe Ruth's homerun record and continued to play baseball despite the racism surrounding him and the sport. Awards: YALSA Best Book for Young Adults.

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