Read an excerpt from Shannon Gibney’s Young Adult novel HANK AARON’S DAUGHTER, below. HANK AARON’S DAUGHTER is the story of Alexandra Kirtridge, a mixed Black girl adopted into a White family. Alex, and her younger brother Jason (who is not adopted), have been raised by their father, Terry Kirtridge, to be amazing baseball players. Terry is a star first-baseman for the Milwaukee Brewer’s.
The novel picks up when Alex is 16, and her body is starting to change and mature. She has been an amazing baseball player as a child, but now her hips are spreading, her balance is off at the plate, and she’s starting to grow breasts. Alex’s flagging skills on the field start to open a chasm between her and her father, a chasm that starts to encompass questions of race, gender, adoption, and kinship as the book progresses.
HANK AARON’S DAUGHTER is currently under review by several publishers. Please return to this site later for more updates on its status.
The moment when I fell in love with Dad for keeps – when Jason and I both did – happened when I was six and Jason was five. It was 1981, which was the only year in Major League baseball history that there was a divisional league playoff series because of a split season. The Brewers played five games against the Yankees, and Jason and I were there for the first two games they played in Milwaukee. This was still part of the golden era of the Brewers franchise, as well as Dad’s career. He was thirty-one, and the best first baseman the team had ever seen. It seemed that he was featured on the local sports news at least once a week, for some amazing defensive play he had executed, or for his offensive power. Jason and I would sit, mesmerized in front of the screen, and clap and scream when his image appeared. But nothing compared to actually seeing him play at the stadium.
Mom had just had Kit, so she hated to be separated from her for any amount of time. In addition, the clamor of the stadium crowds, the sticky chairs and rancid concrete all gave her a headache, she said, and she would do almost anything to avoid taking us there. But Jason, Dad and I ganged up on her; Dad would say that she was cheating us out of sharing the best season of his life, and Jason and I cried on cue whenever he was about to leave the house for a game. So we slowly wore her down. That was how she became more comfortable with leaving Kit home with a babysitter that fall (though she still didn’t like it), and how we found ourselves seated by the batter’s box during the first game, so we could see everything.
What I remember most from that series is the lights: bright, jack-o-lantern lights of the stadium and streets. Though it was already 7:30, we were allowed to hold Mom’s hand and push our way into our seats with the rest of the fans. Jason’s hand was slippery and sweaty, and Mom’s was taut and fervent, yanking this way and that. I couldn’t even see them for so many huge, lumbering people. Mom’s hair was pulled back in a slender knot, but isolated strands still got free and were mashed into her forehead, stuck by sweat. Having kids made her sweaty, I think.
“Hotdog!” Jason yelled suddenly, pointing behind us.
I groaned. Mom shook her head. “We’re almost there, and the game’s starting in two minutes.”
“There’s our seats,” I said, pointing to Row 4, seats 32, 33, and 34.
Mom stopped in her tracks and looked at the tickets again, then back where I said we were sitting. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s it.”
Wobbling voice, throbbing voice, never sure where we are going. I dropped her hand suddenly and pushed my way under butts and on top of feet. A piece of popcorn landed in my hair and a fat man said, “Hey!” My seat was just two feet in front of me, and soon I would eat a dark chocolate Klondike, and Jason would lean his sticky fingers on my shoulder and I would pull them off, even though I liked them there. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that Jason had broken free too, galloping forward with his eye on me. I was the only thing he saw, even though Mom was shouting at us both, “Let’s walk down together!”
I secured the best seat for me, the closest one to the batter, the closest one to Dad. I couldn’t believe he was mine when I saw him there at the plate, circling his bat like a bee does a flower, and then, finally, the bat stinging the ball. That was why they called him the Sting. He gets the job done, Kirtridge (slap on the back from Rollie Fingers, spit out tobacco on the side). The Sting.
“Didn’t you hear me yelling at you to wait?” Mom was leaning over me.
Gladys Knight was standing at the podium, preparing to sing our national anthem. A thick flag whipped in the wind. I put my hand on my heart and pressed down. Thump, thump, thump, thump.
“No,” I said. I stood up. Jason looked at me sideways, then stood up too.
“I know you heard me, young lady,” she said.
Oh, say can you see. By the dawn’s early light. What so proudly we hailed. With Dad’s cap low over his eyes and his shin brace snapped on. He held his hand on his heart, too. At the twilight’s last gleaming. And the rocket’s red glare. His eyes scanned the crowd, toward our seats; he saw us. The bombs bursting in air. Gave proof to the night. That our flag was still there. She turned away from me and opened her purse. Jason was a stiff board to my left, his hands together like he was praying. Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave. For the land of the free. And the home of the Brave. I clapped for Dad, clapped to win.
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the first game of the 1981 American League East Divisional Series.”
Jason screwed up his face so that it looked like an owl’s, while his butt slipped off the seat. Mom stuck a piece of gum in her mouth and sighed. And then Armando stepped up to the plate. As the first batter, he set the tone for the team. He would tell the rest of them if the pitcher had any stuff. Jason giggled; he was too little for this. “I’ll buy you a new house if you take them,” Dad had told Mom the week before. “A new house in Madison?” she asked. She was tired of Milwaukee, where she had lived since she was a child.
Armando smacked one right up the middle. The ball hit the tip of the shortstop’s glove but he couldn’t get it (diving, just missing) and we stood up to watch the distance to first eaten up by his long legs. The throw to first was too late, which meant that there was now one man on base. Jason and I jumped, waved our hands and arms like octupi, and yelled until our mouths hurt. We reveled in behaving like animals; we were base, feral little beasts. Mom clapped beside us, almost daintily. And then Dad was up. He was all wide shoulders and muscle rippling under his jersey. He walked to the plate slowly, swinging the bat. He took his stance, and the pitcher delivered. Dad didn’t swing and the ball came in low and inside for ball one. He stepped out of the box. You have to get inside the mind of the pitcher, you have to make him think he can’t get you out (the more pressure you can put on, the more you freeze him). He stepped back in and the pitch skidded the air, pushed up at the last minute. But Dad showed bunt (his bat a line he held to slow the ball), laying one down on the third base foul line. A tall, thin white man stood next to us. He had yellow teeth and shook his beer while shouting, “Fuck! You fucking idiots, second! The throw to second!” I wondered who would win, the man with the yellow teeth or Dad. The ball was rolling, rolling, while he was running.
“Stay fair!” I yelled, crossing my fingers.
Jason was a worm, wiggling in his seat. Thumb in his mouth, he said, “He’s got to get it, Alex. Got to.”
As usual, Mom was trying to pretend she didn’t care and said nothing. But her arms were crossed and her right foot patted the cement. She cared, we all cared for Dad. Please, God, let the ball stay fair, let Mando get to second. The ball was rolling, rolling, while he was running.
The third base umpire bent his butt down, threw one arm fair.
Mando was almost there but the third baseman had already picked it up, had charged it to second. There it was, flying. I could see it; my eyes were that fast. The ball flew over his head and dropped down a few feet in front of the first baseman. He was safe.
* * * *
Then there was the matter of the tapes. Grainy, chopped up tapes of Hank Aaron talking about hitting more than 20 home runs for 20 straight seasons; tapes of him in the early sixties, discussing removal of segregation signs and policies at the Milwaukee Braves’ spring training facility in Sarasota Springs; footage of their contest against the Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, where he hit his 715th home run in front of 54,000 people and broke Babe Ruth’s record.
It happened in the fourth inning, with two outs and a man on first base. Though I knew exactly when it happened, I would never fast-forward; somehow, that seemed like cheating. Dad always said that it was a whole game, a whole season and ultimately an entire career that led up to an unforgettable moment, that there was no way you could cut corners and get there, and that Hank Aaron’s story exemplified this fact perfectly. So I felt that I absolutely needed to watch the whole game, see the way he played Downing, the veteran pitcher, and take notes on his patience, which was something I always needed to work on.
The record-breaking game was by far my favorite tape, though another one that Dad had of Hank explaining the spate of hate letters he received from people around the country who didn’t want him to break the record just because he was black, was my second favorite. Jason found this tape morbid; I could tell by the way his nose wrinkled up every time he heard the word “nigger.”
“Dear Nigger Henry,” Hank Aaron read to the camera, enunciating each word. “It has come to our attention that you are going to break Babe Ruth’s record. I don’t think that you are going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. Getting back to your blackness, I don’t think any coon should ever play baseball. Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. I will be going to the rest of your games and if you hit more than one home run it will be your last. My gun is watching your every black move. This is no joke.”
Jason would slowly back out of the room whenever this footage came on, but I would just start laughing. I laughed because Hank Aaron had done it anyway; people were threatening to kill him every time he went up to bat, just because he was so good that he was going to break a record that a white man had happened to set. I was sure I could see it each time he stepped up to his plate, the laughter, which was also my laughter, settling into the contours of his face. Though I had never faced what he had, I felt like I knew something about how he felt up there, how he just had to play, even though he himself might never know why.
I studied those tapes. I began waiting for Jason to leave the room even before he joined me to start watching them. He didn’t know, he didn’t understand. It was as if Hank Aaron scared him. That’s when I decided that baseball was only for those of us who weren’t scared, who, like Hank, could say the word “nigger” to the screen and never flinch.
When I was eight, I began watching those tapes with my nose inches from the screen, trying to see every detail of his batting stance, every snap of his wrist. That was when I decided I would be just like Hank Aaron whenever I went on the field. Whenever I felt alone, I would think of him. That was when I began dreaming I was Hank Aaron’s daughter. As I peered at the flickering screen, I was sure I could see in his eyes the same decision to leave all the questions, all the fear behind when he stepped up to the plate.