Hank Aaron conquered the racists and the doubters and the pitchers of the National League while traveling toward ultimate triumph. On April 8, 1974, Aaron launched Al Downing's 1-0 pitch into the stands in Atlanta and passed Babe Ruth as baseball's Home Run King.
He rounded the bases, tears in his eyes. He dodged two Georgia high school students, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, who bolted from their seats and briefly trotted with The King along the basepaths. The teens spent the night in the slammer as reward for their adventure.
Aaron escaped Britt and Cliff and continued his journey toward home plate. He had traveled so far, conquered so much, but this hero was not prepared for the woman who awaited him at home plate.
Estella Aaron had battled through security, brushing aside those who tried to stop her. No man could stop her.
At home plate, Estella seized her child in her arms and refused to let go.
Hank was a strong man, but he could barely breathe.
"Good Lord," Aaron wrote in his autobiography. "I didn't know Mama was so strong."
Yes, it's Mother's Day, which inspires most of us to give thanks for the women who believed in us with such fervor. My mother saw me as a blend of Pele, Albert Einstein, John Steinbeck and Cary Grant. She was gravely mistaken, of course, but that's what the best moms do. They powerfully overrate their children.
When visiting locker rooms, I hear constant talk of mothers. Athletes who rise to the zenith, or near the zenith, of sport must develop an outsized view of themselves and their talents.
This is where moms thrive. The best moms deliver enthusiastic praise, along with the required occasional dose of skepticism, while fueling the dreams of their boys and girls.
A few years ago, I walked into a locker room at Pepsi Center and sat beside Oklahoma Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. He's a peaceful man of few words. I asked questions, and he offered polite if brief answers. He never smiled.
Until we started talking about his mother.
Wanda, his mom, had no use for surrender. She demanded Kevin march toward excellence and a life without compromise. Excuses? Whining? Those crutches were created by other young men, not her son.
"My mom, you know, she pushed me every day," Durant said as his eyes brightened. "I saw her working, saw her getting up at 4 in the morning making sure that my brother and I were ready for school, working all day and then coming home cooking us dinner. She made sure we were straight at night."
Durant smiled as he closed his eyes.
"And she did that every day. I learned from her. I learned a lot from her."
Even at this late stage of his life, Durant said with a laugh, he always knew what his mother would say when he saw her:
Get to work, Kevin.
In early May, two biting words blared across the front page of the sports section in Oklahoma City. "Mr. Unreliable," the headline announced after Durant missed crucial free throws in a loss to Memphis.
A multitude of Oklahoma residents were aghast, but Durant just shrugged. The main point, he said, was this:
I have work to do.
As he softly spoke those words, I could clearly hear another voice.
The voice of Wanda, a steely woman who raised a son fueled by boundless resolve.
Blessedly, Wanda is just one chain in this motherly crusade that thrives through the ages.
In the 1950s, in a house on Beacon Street near Fillmore, Susanne Gossage worked diligently as she crafted a baseball pitcher who would later terrorize batters, first in Colorado Springs and later across our vast nation.
Susanne and her son Rick watched games in the family living room. Susanne understood the game and especially admired the quiet dignity and quick-wristed power of a young outfielder named Hank Aaron.
Little did she know her son would later face this crafty slugger.
Rick developed a fastball that ranks among the best ever thrown by anyone. He grew a Fu Manchu, part of the image of an outrageous baseball character known as The Goose. He was a lead character in the early revival of the Yankees dynasty.
So much changed over the years, but the mother-son bond born on Beacon Street only gained power.
In the summer of 1975, Rick Gossage faced a fading Hank Aaron. The Goose quickly struck out The Home Run King and concluded his attack with an expertly placed third strike a millimeter above the knees. Aaron protested, muttering a few words to the umpire before trudging to the dugout.
Rick knew, immediately, what he would do when he returned to the team hotel.
He called his mom.
A proud mother answered the phone at the family home on Beacon Street.
"Oh, my," Susanne said to her son, "you struck out Hank Aaron."