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FIRST-PERSON: Honoring the man behind the legend

NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Years before I became a pastor or seminary professor, I had another job. As a 16-year-old boy, growing up in Atlanta, I had a dream job – I was a batboy for the Atlanta Braves. Actually, I was bat boy for the visiting team. Being a Major League batboy was an absolute dream come true as I met some of the greatest legends of the game – Yogi Berra, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and others. I met them all.

But the day I met Hank Aaron was different. I discovered that day that his heart was as big as his ability to play the game.

During the summer of 1967, every National League team that came to Atlanta to play the Braves had me as their batboy for the game. Batboys usually do not travel with their teams for away games. Teams bring a uniform with them and use a local teenager to serve as their batboy. When they came to Atlanta that summer, I was their guy. I wore their uniform, worked in the visiting team clubhouse and rubbed shoulders with future hall of famers. Before one game, I played pitch with Willie Mays!

Mark Tolbert at 16, wearing a Philadelphia Phillies uniform when the team came to Atlanta to play the Braves.

My job had two parts; one was fun and one was not so fun. During the games, I had a front row seat in the dugout when the Braves batted. When the visiting team batted, I waited in the on deck circle to pick up bats after each at bat. What great fun! After the game, I was a clubhouse attendant, a “clubbie.” I made sure dirty uniforms were washed and dried, shoes were shined, and basically picked up after 25 grown men. It was not so fun. However, even though mine was a rather menial job, I was happy to be there alongside these sports heroes. Although I was paid very little money, the experience was priceless.

One day, I arrived at the stadium and realized I had left my baseball cleats at home. It was a few hours before game time and most players were not at the stadium yet, so I took the tunnel over to the Braves clubhouse. I found the Braves batboy, who was a friend. He and I were both named Mark, and he was 16 years old, the same as me. I asked if he had an extra pair of cleats I could borrow. He led me over to his locker and offered me his spare pair. But they were size 8, too small for me. “I need a size 10,” I said. “I can’t wear an 8!” He said I was welcome to try. I told him I could not possibly wear a size 8. “I need a pair of 10s,” I said. “I don’t know where I am going to get them.”

Someone was standing behind us and overheard our conversation. He said, “I have a pair of 10s you can borrow.” I turned to see who it was. It was Hank Aaron! I couldn’t believe it! I was completely speechless. He took me over to his locker and loaned me a pair of his shoes to wear for the game that night, which I did. I meekly thanked him, and he said, “You are very welcome.”

I like to tell people, “I can fill Hank Aaron’s shoes!” I did … one night … for about four hours. After the game, I shined them and took them back.

To this day, it remains one of my best memories. He did not have to do that, but he did. He probably knew what it would mean to me as a young teenager. He may not have known it would be a story I would tell people, including my grandchildren 54 years later. One of them texted me on the day he died to tell me the news of his passing. I texted him back: “He was very kind to me 54 years ago. Be kind!”

In 1974, Hank Aaron broke the home run record of the legendary Babe Ruth. Some celebrated, but some were filled with anger and prejudice.

The night I wore Hank Aaron’s shoes was a rare glimpse of an extraordinary man. It was a very private moment, not witnessed by fans or reporters. It was a genuine act of kindness. We live in a world filled with acts that are often anything but kind. Although Hank Aaron is admired and honored today, he suffered countless acts of unkindness and bigotry. But I saw with my own eyes the man behind the legend. I saw a celebrated, legendary Black athlete demonstrate an unheralded act of kindness to a young, white teenager.

Today I pay tribute to Hank Aaron, the man as well as the legend.

Be like Hank; be kind!

Mark Tolbert is a professor of preaching and pastoral ministry and the director of the Caskey Center for Church Excellence at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Mark Tolbert