This one hurts. Hank Aaron has passed away. And it hurts on this personal note: Hank Aaron was my boyhood hero.
It was natural. Growing up within shouting distance of Milwaukee when the Braves called County Stadium home (1953-65), kids had their pick of heroes: Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, maybe Joe Adcock or Lew Burdette. But for me, it was Hank.
When the news of his death broke Friday morning, I was taken back to a day in early 1964 in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, 25 miles south of Milwaukee. I've shared the story before of how my best friend Jeff Busarow and I cut out of school at recess one day and walked the few blocks to the Don Hutson Chevrolet dealership because we had learned that Hank would be there on a season-ticket promotion tour.
Jeff and I were waiting outside the auto showroom, scared to go inside, when a man with a camera hanging from his neck approached and asked us if we were there to see Aaron, and would we want to get a picture with him. Uh, yessss! We were ushered inside and introduced to No. 44. Hank was so gracious to a pair of gawking, speechless seventh-graders.
I remember saying to him that I listen to every game and wait for him to come to the plate "and you always hit a home run." He laughed and said, "Well, not always." He signed my Rawlings baseball glove — a Hank Aaron model, of course — and a ball.
The next day, a Saturday, I was outside playing and I hear my mom yelling: "DAVID WILLIAM WHITEHORN!" We all knew that when parents used your middle name, you were in real trouble. The guy with the camera turned out to be photographer Chuck D'Acquisto of the Racine Journal Times (I would wind up working with him at the paper years later) and his photo of Jeff and I was published in that day’s newspaper.
At school the following Monday, Jeff and I were the heroes, treated like royalty by fellow classmates because someone had snipped the photo and put it on the school bulletin board in the main hallway.
Punishment? I can't remember any, but I’m sure there was some. And the photo? I still have the one my mom saved.
There was another time years later when I was meeting my sister and brother-in-law at the Milwaukee airport. They lived in the Atlanta area and were flying home for a visit. They called from the Atlanta airport to say that Aaron was in the waiting area and would be on their flight. Sure enough, I’m waiting in the baggage area in Milwaukee when Hank and his wife appeared and quietly stood off to the side. I cautiously approached, said hello and recounted the story of how two grade school kids cut afternoon classes one day to see him. He laughed and rewarded me with another autograph.