Lend Me Your Ear 耳
A blog devoted to words, expressions, and more than occasional ramblings.
July 4, 2020 – Independence Day
A while back, my son Tyler saw me reading the sports page and said “I just don’t get newspapers…”
I knew what he meant.
Tyler looks at me sideways when I print on only one side of the paper, so I know that his statement was driven largely by the negative environmental implications of ink on newsprint – a point which I’ll simply concede here. But sustainability aside, I know he meant something more.
Newspapers are having to work hard to remain relevant. There really is not much “news” in newspapers anymore, and I am already aware of most of the headline stories by the time I have the paper in hand. But I still subscribe on the weekends. And I still get the same feeling of excitement every time I sit at the kitchen counter with my morning coffee and open the daily edition – sports page first.
That feeling takes me back. Back to the time when I delivered the morning newspaper on my bike. In those days it was Wheaties or Corn Flakes rather than coffee on the counter when I opened the paper after the route was done. And back even farther than that. Back to when I started collecting newspapers – some just because they were snapshots in time – and some because they recorded monumental events.
Headlines that made history…
Nothing like it.
Sad to think that newspapers are becoming Yesterday’s News.
The expression “yesterday’s news” is used to describe someone or something that is no longer worthy of public interest, importance, or influence. It refers to something that everyone already knows about and is no longer interested in. It conveys a vague sadness about the passage of time and the gradual obsolescence of things that once seemed so important.
At least it does for me.
I hoped writing about yesterday’s news would ease that feeling a bit, and in the end it has. But it took a while. Working through this post has been a process. My initial research did not help.
The first 12 Google hits for “yesterday’s news” refer to a brand of kitty litter.
Sheesh… It seemed like even the phrase “yesterday’s news” had become yesterday’s news.
But I have always thought that we can learn a great deal from the lessons of the past, and recent current events have brought that thought into focus. I think there is much about what happened yesterday that can help us resolve what we are struggling with today. My newspaper collection runs the gamut – from the JFK assassination to the moon landing; from Nixon’s resignation to Clinton’s impeachment; from War in Vietnam to War in Iraq; from the Iran hostage crisis to 911; and from a U.S. Olympic boycott to Miracle on Ice – a collection of our country’s good, bad and ugly if there ever was one. And that is just from my lifetime.
My newspaper collecting days seemed to trail off shortly after 911. Right about the same time that burgeoning technology started making news seem more like noise.
Commotion. Hubbub. Chatter. A confusing mix of messages which are nearly impossible to distill in any meaningful way. Making sense of the news of the day has become extraordinarily challenging. News has become more of a distraction than a collection of momentous history making events.
But there are still occasional moments that capture our attention and focus in ways that are impossible to ignore. We experienced one of those moments recently with the death of George Floyd, and the events that have followed in its wake.
Those events have stirred a mix of emotions in us. I know they have in me. Sorting through those emotions over the ensuing weeks has been and will continue to be a process – which, it would seem, is largely the point. I know that I am proud of young people, including my kids (proud enough that the cardboard signs they made and carried in the local demonstration now have a treasured place alongside my newspaper collection). The young seem much more aware of the need for change, and much less patient in waiting for it to happen.
For many of us that have been around a little longer though, the change must happen on the inside. It is a process of self-reflection, which for me is ongoing. Self-reflection has led me to many different places so far, in search of answers. One of those places was my old newspaper collection – a visit which I hoped would help.
In assessing where we are today, I think it helps to know something about how we got here. I believe there are some messages in those old stories that help us today.
So here goes, from the perspective of a guy who still reads the sports page first.
The sports page I eagerly opened on the morning of April 9, 1974 provided the details of the event I had watched on television the night before. Henry Louis (“Hammerin’ Hank”) Aaron of the Atlanta Braves had slugged out home run number 715 of his major league baseball career, breaking the record set by Babe Ruth nearly forty years earlier. It came in the fourth inning when Hank took Dodgers’ pitcher Al Downing’s offering over the left center wall. It was an exciting, long awaited, memorable, history-making event. And the nine-year-old boy knew who read the sports page that morning realized it – even if he did not fully appreciate all the reasons why.
Not many people did appreciate those reasons at the time. Only Aaron’s family and closest friends. He would later say that his memories of the night he broke Ruth’s record were more bitter than sweet. His road to breaking Ruth’s mark of 714 was filled with anguish.
Racial segregation was commonplace while Hank Aaron was growing up in Mobile, Alabama. He saw how his father had to yield his place in line at a general store when a white customer entered. And there were times when his mother called him into the house and the family hid under a bed because the Ku Klux Klan was marching past. Aaron spent the first 12 years of his major-league career in Milwaukee but when the franchise shifted to Atlanta in 1966, the Braves’ new home did not feel like home. Racial taunts from the stands were commonplace, and he preferred playing on the road.
Aaron’s 40-homer season in 1973 left him at 713. One short of Babe. The sports world had the entire winter to focus on Ruth’s record. The hate mail started.
“Dear Mr. (racial slur), I hope you don’t break Babe’s record…”
“You are not going to break the record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. My gun is watching your every black move.’’
“Retire or die!!!
You will die in one of those games… I will shoot you.”
Aaron tied Ruth with his first swing on Opening Day, April 4, 1974. True to form, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t want anyone to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember Hank Aaron.”
Truth be told, Babe Ruth would have supported Aaron’s run at his record, and he would have been mortified over the hateful words being spoken in his name.
George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth was born in 1895 in a poor waterfront neighborhood in Baltimore where his parents owned a tavern. He was one of eight siblings, only two of whom survived infancy. He roamed the streets as a young child, and was routinely caught wandering the dockyards, chewing tobacco, and taunting local police officers. By age seven, the trouble making Ruth had become more than his parents could handle, and they sent him to a Catholic orphanage and reformatory school that became his home for the next twelve years.
Ruth excelled at baseball and signed his first professional contract with the then minor league Baltimore Orioles at the age of nineteen (a tender age for a pro at that time, which earned him the “Babe” moniker). The Boston Red Sox soon called him up to the majors, and the rest is history. Babe won seven World Series titles combined in a twenty-two-year career with Boston and then the New York Yankees. He set every record in the book, including the 714-home run mark.
He was pro sports first superstar. Babe was larger than life. He had the style, bankroll, and endorsements to match any modern-day athlete. He was universally loved and generous to a fault, especially when it came to children. He never turned down an autograph and routinely made charitable appearances. Babe adored children.
And, at a time when black people were not allowed to play in the major leagues, Babe resisted that notion and offered support. According to a recently published biography, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Babe upset the baseball world and baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis by going on a 21-day, circus like barnstorming exhibition tour after the 1927 World Series against Negro Leaguers and other touring black ball clubs. (Landis was an acknowledged racist who maintained the “color-line,” preventing integration until Jackie Robinson broke it in 1947, three years after Landis’ death). Black players appreciated Ruth’s show of respect and the fact that he lent his name and talent in helping to support their games at the box office. Baseball’s decision makers were not appreciative, however, and it is thought that Babe’s support of black players cost him the chance to manage a team of his own after his retirement as a player.
It is true that Babe was a hero for many.
He also, it would seem, had feet of clay. Babe lived a life of extravagant excess. It has been said that he “challenged authority, defied Prohibition, reveled with abandon, and womanized recklessly.”
Feet of clay is an expression used to describe a weakness or flaw in the character of a greatly admired or respected person. It comes from a Bible verse in the Book of Daniel where the prophet interprets Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a statue with a head of gold and feet of iron clay.
Some find disappointment in feet of clay, realizing that their hero was not so heroic after all.
Some search for reasons why a person thought to be a hero really has feet of clay – cynically taking pleasure in exposing hypocrisy.
And some find the hero’s feet of clay to beinspiring.
When possible, I pick number three.
The fact that heroes are also human means that we all can be heroic. Recognizing and appreciating their achievements despite their shortcomings allows us to still be inspired by the heroes of the past – while at the same time understanding their frailties. In this way, heroes can inspire us to be better and do better.
Human heroes can inspire change.
We all get to choose our heroes. Our heroes change over time, as do the reasons we find them heroic. I think we all need heroes, and it is sad to think that the cynicism that can come with age, change, and the passage of time could one day make heroes obsolete.
Like Babe, Hank Aaron was a hero to many. If Aaron had feet of clay, it has not been revealed. At least in any public way.
Aaron did stir some controversy though when he gave an interview in 2014 upon the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking home run. In that interview, he noted that when it comes to racism in this country, not a whole lot has changed. “We have moved in the right direction, and there have been some improvements, but we still have a long way to go in this country.”
Aaron expressed support for then President Obama and dismay that he had been “left in the mud” by the Republicans. Hank went on to say that the biggest difference “back then” was that “they had hoods,” and now “they have neckties and starched shirts.”
And the hate-mail started.
Proving once again just how far we must go.
Aaron and the Braves were deluged with hate mail. The letters that Aaron received following his 2014 interview were starkly the same as the letters that arrived during his home run chase back in 1974.
Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur)”
My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur).
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hank Aaron was a hero on that April night in 1974 and his heroism continues to today. He retired in 1976 with 755 home runs, a record that remained in place until broken by Barry Bonds in 2007. Aaron became a Hall of Famer in 1982. He spent the rest of his career in the Braves front office, eventually becoming the senior vice president and assistant to the president. Today he runs the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which gives children the mentoring and financial support they need to follow their dreams.
Aaron no longer holds the home run record, and despite his continuing efforts, racism still exists.
But Hank Aaron remains a hero. As does Babe Ruth.
Prior generations inspire those that follow to do better.
And how can future generations move forward toward a solution?
How can racism eventually become Yesterday’s News?
What can young people do?
What can we all do?
In Hank’s own words… The same words he used when asked how he was able to accomplish so much, despite all the obstacles he faced.
“Just keep swinging”, Hank Aaron said.
“Just keep swinging.”