ATLANTA -- Hank Aaron beamed with pride as approximately 800 guests gathered at the Delta Flight Museum on Friday night to provide him an early birthday party. Some of the most treasured artifacts from his legendary career were flown in from Cooperstown for this celebration, which counted Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Bud Selig among its distinguished guests.
Aaron will forever be recognized as the man who shattered Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record and one of the greatest players to ever stand on a baseball diamond. But more than 40 years after his last game, the legend simply views his past as a means with which to continue giving back to the community courtesy of events like this birthday gala, which benefited the Chasing the Dream Foundation that he and his wife started in 1994.
"You try to help children to help themselves by chasing a dream," Aaron said. "That's what it's all about. The charity brings me a lot of joy. My wife and I have always felt whatever comes in has to go out. It doesn't belong to us anyhow. The good Lord blessed me to play baseball for 23 years, and I have to give back."
Aaron walks with the assistance of a cane, which became necessary after he slipped on ice a few years ago. But two days before his 83rd birthday, The Hammer still displayed a vibrant spirit as he greeted his guests and took time to mingle with many of his longtime friends, including former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, Dale Murphy and former Braves owner Bill Bartholomay, who brought Aaron and the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966.
"My leg is giving me a little trouble, but I feel good," Aaron said with a bright smile.
Along with annually aiding underprivileged students with scholarships via his foundation, Aaron also showed his philanthropic spirit when he offered nearly all of his baseball artifacts to the Hall of Fame in an effort to help preserve the game's history. He has also loaned the bat and ball from his record-breaking 715th home run to the Braves.
As a result, the Hall of Fame didn't blink when Aaron asked whether some of his prized artifacts could be sent to Atlanta for this event.
"This is very rare for us," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. "Henry has been very generous to us with the artifacts he has donated to us. When he and [his wife] Billye had the idea of having an exhibit here, we were honored to be asked and thrilled to bring a dozen artifacts from Cooperstown that are really from all different aspects of his career."
Some of Aaron's items on display included: his 1952 contract ($200 per month) with the Class C Eau Claire Braves, championship rings won with the 1953 Class A Jacksonville Braves and 1957 World Series champion Milwaukee Braves, bats and balls commemorating his 500th home run, his 714th home run, his 3,000th hit and the RBI that gave him the Major League record, the Presidential Citizens Medals awarded in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded in 2002.
"It brings back a lot of memories, and it looks great," Aaron said. "I'm just happy to see such an outpouring of love for what I accomplished many, many years ago. People still remember a lot of those moments."
Aaron will always be remembered for those accomplishments that made him one of the world's most recognized athletes. But those who know him best and those who have benefited from his generosity recognize that his contributions to the world extend beyond what he could do with a bat and glove.
"When you're talking about Henry Aaron, you're really talking about a game changer," Bartholomay said. "You're talking about a guy who has really lived a life on and off the field. Here's a guy who has been everything from an honorary Boy Scout to the greatest player in the history of the game."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.