by Bob Nightengale , USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA — Hank Aaron, surrounded by hatred and bigotry in the Deep South, refused to leave when they wanted him gone.
He broke the record many in America didn’t want him to break.
Now, he speaks at a time when it’s just as easy to be silent.
Aaron, 79, a man who symbolizes excellence and grace, will forever be remembered as the man who broke perhaps sports’ greatest record, hitting his 715th homer in 1974, and eclipsing Babe Ruth’s all-time mark.
Yet, the greatest feat in his lifetime, Aaron says, is the barrier broken in Washington.
“I never thought we’d ever have a black president,” Aaron tells USA TODAY Sports. “President Obama has done such a tremendous job. … He just has been unable to get what he needs to be moved at the level it should be moved. My wife and I pray that people will understand that.”
Aaron received death threats, constant hate letters, and vicious racism when he broke Ruth’s sacred record on April 8, 1974.
“People were not ready to accept me as a baseball player,” Aaron says. “The easiest part of that whole thing, chasing the Babe’s record, was playing the game itself. The hardest thing was after the game was over, dealing with the press. They could never understand. Here comes a young black player from Alabama, he’s challenging one of the most prestigious records in the world, and they couldn’t handle it.”
Aaron doesn’t want to be known as simply one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived, with 755 homers and a record 2,297 RBI and 25 All-Star Game appearances, but remembered as a great American.
“I am very proud to be an American,” Aaron says, “This country has so much potential, I’d just like to see things better, or whatever, and I think it will be.
“I hope (young adults) understand they are very lucky to be born in this country. The most important thing they need to understand is that when they go to school, go to college, and graduate, it’s to make a contribution to this country.”
Aaron is aware of the statistics that still plague this country. There are currently only two African-Americans in the U.S. Senate, both of whom have been appointed. The unemployment rate for African Americans (as of April) is 13.2%. Aaron believes there can’t be a level playing field in the corporate world, Aaron says, until there are more black CEOs and presidents in the boardrooms.
“I still think we have a ways to go,” Aaron says, “to make people understand. We still have problems. In all walks of life.”
Even Major League Baseball, which has just three African-American managers and one general manager among its 30 teams.
“In baseball, I’d love to see black ownerships,” Aaron says. “People say, well, we have Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner), but that’s a carrot really.”
While Aaron is grateful that Jackie Robinson cleared the way when he broke the color barrier in 1947, he wishes it had happened earlier.
“Too bad integration didn’t come sooner because there were so many ballplayers that could have made the major leagues,” he says. “That’s why you look back, and not to take away anything from Babe Ruth or some of those other guys, they didn’t play against the greatest ballplayers in the world.”
Aaron says that he owes so much to Major League Baseball, but he also believes MLB owes African-Americans a greater avenue for participation.
“I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African-Americans,” Aaron says. “Let’s face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.
“And to see where it is today, he certainly would be disappointed. You look at baseball. The African American (segment) is not one they’re concerned with.”
African-Americans accounted for just 7.7% of players on MLB rosters on opening day, the lowest mark since the Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate its roster in 1959, according to a USA TODAY study.
“A lot of people want their kids to play baseball, but can’t afford it financially. Today, black kids don’t have places to play,” he said. “They don’t have the bats, balls, gloves. They don’t have coaches.
“I think Major League Baseball has to reach back in their pocket and do something to help these kids. I know they’re trying to, but I know there’s so much room for improvement.”
HAPPY FOR BONDS
Aaron’s record stood until Bonds eclipsed it in 2007, invoking a different type of controversy. Bonds broke the record amid allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. A federal jury acquitted Bonds on three counts he committed perjury in 2003 grand jury testimony regarding steroid use, and Bonds’ appeal of a felony conviction of obstruction of justice is still pending.
“That is mind-boggling,” Aaron says. “When you think about all of the guys who have been accused of cheating, and didn’t necessarily have to cheat. If you cheat, and you lie, the public holds you accountable.”
Despite the controversy over Bonds’ record, Aaron insists he is happy for Bonds, and his absence when Bonds broke the record was misperceived. He purposely stayed away, he said, out of respect for Bonds.
“I was glad he did it,” Aaron says, “I sent a congratulatory note. It was his day. It was not my day.
“I had already been through it. I didn’t want to go through that again.”