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Opinion: Ill never forget my afternoon with Hank Aaron, a true American hero

6 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2021/01/22/hank-aaron-dies-baseball-hall-of-fame/6676234002/

The vile phone calls and hate mail poured into the Atlanta Braves’ offices, littered with ugly epithets and racial overtones.

They were belittling, ridiculing and reviling, demanding the organization take action against Hank Aaron.

This wasn’t 1974, the year Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record.

This was 2014, after an interview I did with Aaron commemorating the 40-year anniversary of his record.

We talked for an hour that day at the ballpark about that historic moment and why he saved all of the hate mail from his chase of Ruth – wanting to be reminded of the hatred that still exists.

He never begrudged Barry Bonds for eclipsing his record, but believed there should be asterisks on the plaques of future Hall of Famers who used performance-enhancing drugs. He was distraught by the lack of diversity in major-league baseball, with his frustrations never subsiding.

And, yes, we talked about politics, too.

HANK AARON: We may never see another hitter like the MLB legend

MORE: Aaron may not be home run king, but his legacy runs way deeper

“A lot of things have happened in this country,’’ Aaron said, several years after Barack Obama became the country’s first Black president, “but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.

“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a Black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.’’

Well, the outcry was enormous in Atlanta, and I was horrified, seeing people deride a man who’s so beloved not just for his accomplishments, but his sheer class and demeanor.

He wasn’t calling the Republican party racist but was simply frustrated for Obama, whose family his had become close with over the years.

I picked up the telephone, called Aaron at his home and profusely apologized.

“For what?’’ Aaron said. “I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean. People need to hear these things.’’

Aaron speaks at a ceremony in 2014 honoring the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking home run.

Remarkably, nothing shook this man. And he spoke when it was so much easier and comfortable to be silent.

The conversation was two years after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager was killed in Florida.

This was five months before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., six years before Breonna Taylor was killed in her apartment in Louisville, Ky., and George Floyd in Minneapolis.

And of course, years was before the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol just weeks ago.

Now, 16 days after the state of Georgia voted for their first black Senator, and two days after the historic inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Aaron died Friday morning in his Atlanta home.

Aaron was 86 years old, but the timing was stunning, and completely unexpected.

Close friends saw him and spoke to him just a few days ago. He was filmed two weeks ago at the Morehouse School of Medicine taking the COVID-19 vaccination, answering the school’s request for Black civil and human rights leaders to help combat hesitancy among minorities and communities of color. He had announced the annual Hank Aaron Award winners in December.

Now, here we are.

There was Atlanta manager Brian Snitker crying on a video call. Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker calling Aaron the greatest influence in his life outside of his father. Former outfielder and team broadcaster Brian Jordan saying he signed as a free agent with Atlanta simply because of Aaron. The baseball community, from Aaron’s former teammates to former commissioner Bud Selig, to Hall of Famers, all telling their favorite stories.

“He had this aura about him,’’ Hall of Famer Chipper Jones said. “He was in constant peace while he probably had every right to be militant and angry and leery of everyone he came into contact with.

“He never was. He always had this gentle smile. Always had this peace about him.’’

This will be his legacy, knowing that if any man of his greatness had a reason to be bitter, it was Aaron.

He may be forever remembered as the man who broke Ruth’s record, but anyone who ever was blessed to know him, or even speak to him, understand that he epitomized excellence and class.

“He was the best person that I ever knew, and the truest, most honest person that I ever knew,’’ said Baker, who was raised by Aaron as a young ballplayer with Atlanta. “He taught me how to be a man, and how to be a proud African-American. He taught me how important it was to give back to the community, and he inspired me to become an entrepreneur.

“Hank impacted my life, my family, and my world, both on and off the field.’’

I would see Aaron every summer in Cooperstown during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and no matter whether it was in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, or walking on stage during the ceremony, or the traditional cocktail reception the evening before the ceremony, no one was more revered.

He would get the loudest ovations from the fans.

He would have the most Hall of Famers surrounding his table at the reception.

Wherever he went, Jones said, “It was like watching God walk by.’’

Aaron spoke often of his reverence for Jackie Robinson, and just as Aaron’s stature grew ever year, too, he wanted to make sure he left his own legacy.

“He impacted me not just as a ballplayer,’’ Aaron said of Robinson, “but as a human being. He was more than a ballplayer. He was someone who knew what the plight of most Black folks were in baseball. He went from the playing field to helping people realize that although he was able to play baseball, baseball still had to do something for minorities.

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King was fighting for equal rights in one area, and Jackie was fighting for equal rights in another.’’

And Aaron was always fighting too, speaking out on the racism and injustices, saying he was proud to be an American, but just wanting so much more for this country.

“He never missed an opportunity to lead,’’ Obama said in a statement, remembering Aaron’s recent public vaccination with civil rights leaders.

Aaron’s stature grew exponentially after his playing career ended, with Selig, one of his closest friends, helping Aaron become more comfortable in public to share his thoughts and vision for this country.

“Hank Aaron was not only one of baseball’s greatest players,’’ said Ken Burns, the renowned documentary filmmaker, “but was also a remarkable hero whose perseverance and forbearance in the face of unspeakable racism is a testament to the human spirit.’’

That’s what I’ll remember most about Aaron, the class and eloquence of a man who was so badly wronged and mistreated in life, but refused to let ignorance and bigotry stop him from sharing his innermost thoughts and views of the world around him.

The immediate sadness is overwhelming and at some point I’ll stop poring over the afternoon I was blessed to be with an American hero, who was fearless bearing his soul.

But, man, the legacy of Henry Louis Aaron is going to live forever.

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