Mobile’s Black Catholics dominated this morning’s news cycle, as almost simultaneous with news of Gen. Lloyd Austin entering the next stage of his career (now Senate-confirmed as defense secretary) came news of Hank Aaron entering the next life.
The unblemished Home Run King passed away today in his sleep at the age of 86, a little more than two weeks after receiving the first dose of the Coronavirus vaccine.
The cause of death has not been disclosed.
Throughout his storied 23-year MLB career—preceded by a stint in the Negro Leagues in the early 1950s—”Hammerin’ Hank” managed to rack up the most All-Star game selections of all time (25), as well as the most RBIs, extra base hits, and total bases.
In 1957, a few months after Aaron won his only World Series and MVP award, his wife Barbara gave birth to twins. Lary and Gary were baptized shortly thereafter at St Anthony’s Hospital. Gary passed away two days later.
At the time, neither Hank nor his wife were Catholic, but the experience apparently led to their interest in the faith.
A Catholic booklet, Venerable Fulton Sheen’s “The Life of Christ”, became a staple of his glove compartment. Another book, Thomas a Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ”, became a staple of his game locker.
Fr Michael Sablica, a newly ordained priest, introduced himself to the Aarons after Gary’s passing—Barbara’s nurse was one of Sablica’s parishioners—and he and Hank became good friends.
The two men would bond over their shared passion for athletics, Christianity and activism—including Fr Sabilica’s insistence, like Daniel Rudd, that only the Catholic Church could break the color line— and a little over a year later, Aaron entered the church with his young family at St Benedict the Moor, a Black parish.
Aaron endured racism in the Church (being more or less unwelcome at Mass in local White parishes) and in his field (no pun intended). He broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974—much to the chagrin of racists and many other onlookers.
His own GM, John Quinn, initially told Fr Sabilca that Aaron would have no interest in befriending a Catholic priest, as he was “uncomplicated”. Quinn would later try to end Sablica’s contact with Aaron altogether once the priest’s activistic goals became clear.
Though Hank noted to the media at the time of his conversion in 1959 that no other members of his family were Catholic, in 1962 his brother (and Milwaukee teammate) Tommie married Carolyn Davenporte, a faithful Black Catholic until her death in 2015. She graduated from the high school attached to the parish where Hank’s family was baptized.
In 1982, just six years after his retirement, Aaron was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Two years later, Tommie died, buried thereafter in a Catholic cemetery in Mobile.
Hank had his #44 retired by both of his teams, the Braves (who moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966), and the Brewers (for whom he played two seasons after being brought back to the city in 1974).
At the time of his death, he served as senior vice president and assistant to the president of the Braves, and as VP of community relations for TBS, an Atlanta-based media conglomerate.
He would have turned 87 on February 5th. It looks like he’ll have to settle for eternity instead.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).