Legendary player deflects praise for bringing fans together during 1960s
By Terence Moore
ATLANTA -- Ask Hank Aaron a question, and he'll give you an answer. Here's a warning, though. He's a man of dignity, but as somebody who overcame his share of obstacles before finishing his career with 755 home runs, he isn't afraid to speak his mind.
For instance, as America celebrates its holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aaron isn't sure the nation is as close to overcoming all of its various forms of injustice as much as The Drum Major For Justice implored it to do.
"I'm afraid, because we move as a society five steps forward and four steps backward, and I think we still have a long, long ways to go," said Aaron, just a few weeks from his 83rd birthday. "I look at the country itself, and we still have a lot of people with nothing to help them survive, and once they think they have something, they don't have what they're supposed to have. I would think Dr. King would insist on us marching some more."
This is for sure: Whenever Aaron enters a room, you feel it. His presence is overwhelming, but only for those who are mesmerized by kind eyes, the most enchanting laugh you'll ever hear and all of that history, spanning from his place among the elite of baseball's all-time greats to his splendid contributions over the decades to the civil rights movement.
After Aaron retired from the Major Leagues in 1976, he became one of baseball's first African-American executives when he joined the front office of the Braves, his team for 21 of 23 seasons as a Hall of Fame player. He evolved into an outspoken advocate for hiring of more African-American managers, coaches, scouts and general managers. In addition, Aaron formed his Chasing The Dream Foundation that continues to help minority and other disadvantaged youth with college scholarships, and he remains active in other charities around Atlanta, where he still lives.
So I spent Thursday in my home, north of this unofficial capital of the New South, wondering about something during the start of this King Holiday weekend. Since folks are so moved by Aaron's presence these days, what was it like when King was at the height of his fame between his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.?
I asked a guy who knows: Aaron.
"The only time I was ever around Dr. King was when I met him at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium during the late 1960s, and he was with an entourage, but we didn't get a chance to sit down and talk like I wanted to," Aaron told me on Thursday, recalling his moment with Dr. King after he moved with the Braves from Milwaukee to King's hometown of Atlanta in 1966.
Just like that, the South had a couple of iconic figures, and there they were inside of what was then one of the newest ballparks in baseball, matching charisma against charisma in the same spot.
Aaron chuckled, then said, "Yeah, when Dr. King came into a room, you knew it, and it happened like this: People would look around, and they'd say [as Aaron lowered his voice], 'That's Dr. King.' He was the type of guy who commanded attention, and people respected it. He deserved all the fame he got, because of what he stood for and what he said and the things that he did. People like Dr. King, Andy Young [one of Dr. King's top lieutenants and later the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the second African-American mayor of Atlanta] and Joseph Lowery [another King associate] are one of a kind.
"I mean, playing baseball to me was a game, and I could do it pretty well. But by the same token, what they did, on the other hand, they were against the evil things happening around the nation. People were throwing things at them when they marched, and the Ku Klux Klan was ready to shoot them. They had the courage to stand up to all of those things."
That sounds like somebody else I know. Yep, Aaron, who is also the prince of humility. That's why he acknowledged dealing with many "of those things" he ascribed to Dr. King, Young and the rest ("I experienced them, too. I certainly did," Aaron said), but he preferred to leave the details to others.
For instance: Aaron dealt with the typical horrors of African-Americans growing up in the segregated South during the 1930s and '40s, when his family stayed on the poor side of the tracks in Mobile, Ala. What wasn't typical was the ugly ways in which people responded to a man of serenity and quick wrists on the verge of breaking the most sacred record in sports at the time.
Simply put, while Aaron chased, caught and catapulted Babe Ruth's career home run record of 714 after blasting No. 715 on April 8, 1974, he encountered hate mail that rivaled that of Dr. King.
There were death threats, too.
Aaron kept playing and slugging. Even though he avoided the drama by sleeping overnight at ballparks down the stretch of his Ruth chase, he responded with such poise before the large crowds at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and elsewhere that Young once told me that Aaron did more to integrate the South than Dr. King.
"You've got to remember that before Hank and the Braves came to town, the South was officially integrated, but there were really no occasions that had whites and blacks coming together in one location," said Young, who has lived in Atlanta for decades. "Hank made it OK for blacks and whites to mingle together, and that's because they were coming to the ballpark for the same cause: To cheer the Braves and to pull for Hank Aaron."
The hate increased as he chased down Ruth's record, but in the big picture, it was insignificant to the right-handed slugger. He just kept swinging. And he did so, like Dr. King, with calm amid of turmoil.
It turned into personal triumph. Even though Aaron's homers were nice, he became more noted for playing in 25 All-Star Games and evolving into a complete player. He hit for average with a lifetime mark of .305, and he won three Gold Gloves in right field. Then there was everything in between, which stretched his page on Baseball-Reference.com toward its outer limits.
In essence, given the combination of Aaron's play and his personality, he was a welcome antidote to the turbulent 1960s, which included the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and King, along with college protests everywhere over the Vietnam War, and the heightened drug culture.
Aaron didn't see any of his civil rights importance back then.
Actually, he still doesn't.
"No, no. I don't," Aaron said. "Like I said, I'm a long way from being somebody like Andy Young or Reverend Lowery, who have done so many great things, more than just hit baseballs and whatever. I've gotten to know Andy very, very well, and I've gotten to sit down and talk to him about different things. Then I'll listen to Congressman John Lewis [who was nearly beaten to death by Alabama state troopers during the civil rights movement] and what he went through, and then I think about the little bitty thing that I did.
"Andy always tells me, 'You did as much as you were supposed to do, and we were doing what we were supposed to do.' But I didn't look at it that way. I didn't march. I wish I had. But I feel so appreciative that Andy and some of the other civil rights icons put me in that same category as them.
"I guess God works in mysterious ways. He gives some people the ability to do some things, and other folks the ability to do other things. Maybe he looked at me and said, 'Hank, I want you to play baseball and to show people black and white, especially white, that the playing field is level. That no matter what we're talking about, black people can do the same things as whites.'
"I've started to look at it that way. I've told Andy, 'I wouldn't have been a peaceful marcher, because if somebody would have hit me or spit on me, I would have hit back, and I wouldn't have lasted very long.' So God told me, 'I want you to play baseball. Here's your bat, here's your glove, and there's the baseball. You can do as much for civil rights as those people out there marching.' I hear that and I know that, but I still look at Dr. King and the rest, and I still ask myself when it comes to civil rights, 'Henry, what did you do?'"
Henry did a lot. And he's still doing so.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.