Aaron and his wife, Billye, made an appearance at the roundtable discussion at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. At the end of an informative, thought-provoking 90-minute discussion, the event's moderator, Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree called the Aarons to the stage.
The Aarons were greeted with a spontaneous and sustained standing ovation. Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman, and a member of this panel, had referred to Aaron repeatedly as a pioneer in baseball's portion of the struggle for civil rights, a man who had paved the way for generations of African-American ballplayers to come.
Here, Morgan demonstrated his gratitude by noting that a new Aaron book, "The Last Hero," was out, and that people should read it.
"He is a hero and he's been a hero of mine for a long time," Morgan said of Aaron.
Aaron politely protested that this was not his book.
"To be honest with you, I haven't read it," Aaron said with a smile. "My book, 'I Had a Hammer,' was out a few years ago and it was very, very good. We did all right with it; it was on the New York Times bestseller list for 16, 17 weeks."
Billye Aaron, asked by Ogletree to provide some insight on her husband's public pronouncements, said, "He doesn't say a lot, but thinks deeply."
Billye Aaron provided a story about a central moment in her husband's career when she thought she received too much media attention.
It was a Cincinnati story. Aaron hit his 714th home run, to tie Babe Ruth for the career record against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium on April 4, 1974. Billye Aaron said that her husband had asked the Reds to mark the moment with a moment of silence honoring Martin Luther King. The Reds refused Aaron's request.
It says something important about Aaron that he would attempt to take a moment of personal triumph and turn it into a remembrance of the civil rights leader. Aaron had received mountains of racist hate mail and even death threats as he pursued Ruth's records. He carried on with the dignity and perseverance that have characterized his career and his life.
In this case, Aaron was being quizzed repeatedly about his request for the moment of silence by members of the media, in his wife's presence. Finally, Billye Aaron had enough and delivered her own statement on civil rights: "Well, he shouldn't have to request that; the stature of the man demands it."
Subsequently, it was reported, Billye Aaron said with a smile, that Aaron's direction on civil right was dictated to him "by his militant wife."
On the topic of role models, which was central to the roundtable discussion, Aaron related a story about a blue-chip football recruit he met at the end of his own playing career. The player was being sought by big-time college programs and Aaron noted how he looked the part, impressively large and muscled. The young man's idol was Walt Garrison, who had been a prominent running back with the Dallas Cowboys. Garrison was also a longtime spokesman for a brand of smokeless tobacco.
As a result, the football prospect used "snuff" incessantly. He eventually died from the effects of it. Aaron said that whenever he thought about what his actions as famous baseball player meant to young people, this example came to mind. He was inescapably a role model.
Henry Aaron was and is the kind of role model that we could use more of, not only in baseball but in society. His presence in the context of civil rights and baseball turned what was a very worthwhile event into a very worthwhile, blessed event.