April 8, 1974, was one of the high points of Henry Aaron’s life. That night, Aaron, who died on Friday at 86, surpassed Babe Ruth’s lifetime record with his 715th home run.
But 16 years earlier, Aaron and his wife, Barbara, were in the depths of anguish. Barbara had given birth to twins prematurely, Gary and Lary, on December 15, 1957, but a few days later, Gary died. Lary was clinging to life at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
Barbara’s nurse was a Catholic and told her newly-ordained parish priest, Fr. Michael Sablica, about the couple’s ordeal. This was long before HIPAA privacy laws would have forbid such a move. Fr. Sablica, himself an athlete, went to the hospital to express his condolences.
The two men developed a friendship, often playing handball at Marquette University, where Sablica had played football years earlier. The priest found the ballplayer to be open to conversations about religion.
“Henry told Sablica that while he had been raised in the traditions of the southern black church, he had been intrigued about other religions and denominations,” Howard Bryant wrote in his 2010 biography of Aaron, The Last Hero. “Whether this interest was a direct by-product of Gary’s death or Lary’s struggle to survive — or merely because he saw an opportunity to increase his own religious knowledge — Henry seemed open to the teachings of Catholicism, certainly willing to expand his worldview beyond baseball and the safety and comforts of his own situation. One day, after a round of golf, Father Mike noticed a small book Henry kept in his glove compartment; it was titled The Life of Christ.”
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