KANSAS CITY– There was a hush in the big room as Hank Aaron spoke. Many of the 200 listeners knew the outlines of the story. But there was something more moving, more intense, hearing it spill from the man’s own lips right in front of you.
Yes, it happened a long time ago, when American society was cruder, ruder, and more prejudiced than it seems to be today. Yet the words still carried power, especially to those of a certain age that had lived through and endured the stings of racism and those whose skin is as dark as a chocolate bar.
One of the greatest players in baseball was reliving history for the crowd at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on the Sunday before the Major League Baseball All-Star game. The history was filled with a strangling mix of emotions representing the uplifting mix of pride and accomplishment needed to conquer unfounded enmity.
For all of the former Braves’ outfielder’s uncommon achievements, nothing compared for sheer drama to his pursuit of the all-time home-run record when Aaron was chasing the ghost and statistics of Babe Ruth in the 1970s.
This African-American son of the South was on the verge of passing the iconic Ruth’s 714 career home runs and the country pretty much went crazy over it. There were those who did not want to ever see the Sultan of Swat surpassed. There were those who rooted for Aaron’s greatness in their midst unfolding with each at-bat on the canvases of the league’s ballparks. And there were the ignorant, the irrational, nasty-to-the-core haters still fighting the Civil War in their hearts who could not get over that a black man might soon possess the most coveted sports record in the United States.
It should have been a time of unadulterated pleasure for Aaron. Instead, as he closed in on Ruth, it was a time of great fear and trepidation. Those with malice in their minds wrote threatening letters. The deluge of hate forced Aaron to stay in hotels apart from his Atlanta Braves teammates under assumed names and police protection. His college-aged daughter needed protection while attending Fisk University. His younger sons needed police escorts traveling back and forth to school.
The world awaited Aaron’s 715th career home run and Aaron could not hurry it along fast enough.
“The last two years of my career were probably the toughest of my 23 years,” Aaron said. “It was kind of sad for me and it should have been joyful for me. I was merely playing baseball. I don’t know where I got the strength.”
Aaron made the acquaintanceship of FBI agents who scanned his mail. He told them to forget it, but one agent said that while 99 percent of the insulting letters might be from people who would never act out their thoughts there was always the one percent lunatic fringe that might. So the agents kept reading, with disgust, the racial slurs, the death threats.
During a professional baseball career that began as a teenager, Aaron briefly played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues, broke into the majors when the Braves moved to Milwaukee, starred with them there and in Atlanta, and finished up as designated hitter with the Milwaukee Brewers when they were still in the American League.
He became the all-time home run king on April 8, 1974 when he slammed No. 715 at Fulton County Stadium and retired with 755 dingers (since surpassed by Barry Bonds’ 762). He also knocked in 2,297 runs, scored 2,174, and batted .305. The numbers are monumental.
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama Aaron was so poor he could not afford genuine baseball equipment, so he swatted bottle caps with a broomstick to hone his batting stroke. He played for Jacksonville in the Sally League when that southern-based league was still a festering sore of racism.
Frank Robinson, who later became the first African-American manager at the end of his own Hall of Fame playing career, shared the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum session with Aaron and he followed him into the Sally League in the 1950s. Everywhere he went, Robinson said, people spoke of Aaron’s hitting exploits.
“He inspired me,” said Robinson, who slugged 586 homers primarily for the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles.
Robinson said he would show up at a Sally League park and be informed that “Henry hit one over here.” That would be a home run soaring such a great distance that tape measures were rendered obsolete. Then it was on to the next ballpark and Robinson heard more of the same about Henry. Henry did this, Henry hit the ball there. Robinson didn’t know who the heck Henry was at the time, but he found out.
During the Ruth chase Aaron found little peace. He occasionally made a getaway to visit his mother in Alabama, the woman who instilled ambition and hope in him. And he began viewing each ballpark where the Braves played as a sanctuary.
“God had wrapped me in his hand and I was very safe when I got to the ballpark,” Aaron said.
Aaron is showing his age. He is 78 years old and walks with stiffness in his stride and his close-cropped hair has gone white. There was never any self-aggrandizement in Aaron. He did his job superbly on the diamond and did not brag. He carried his greatness quietly, but his shoulders were broad when they needed to be.
Aaron said he has a grandson who was incredulous about the hatred his grandfather faced for hitting home runs. The boy said, “It’s only a baseball game.”
The old man expressed agreement. But in his heart Hank Aaron knows his ordeal was about more than baseball, that it represented the struggles of his people. And so did those 200 listeners who offered a standing ovation. As indivisible as Aaron and the accomplishment seem to be, his audience clapped less for those 755 home runs than for the dignity of the man who hit them.
They appreciate the home runs, but they love the man.
Tags: AL East All-Star Game Atlanta Braves Babe Ruth Baltimore Orioles Barry Bonds Cincinnati Reds Civil War Frank Robinson Fulton County Stadium Hank Aaron Indianapolis Clowns Milwaukee Braves Milwaukee Brewers Negro Leagues Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Sally League