You’re no Hank Aaron

This weekend, Barry Bonds surpassed Babe Ruth by hitting his 715th career home run. He is now 40 homers behind Hank Aaron, baseball home run king. I’ve got nothing new to say about Bonds. But I thought I could chip in a bit about Aaron.

Nineteen years ago I had a chance to spend a few hours talking with him and following him around for The Washington Post. To see the story, a long one, click on the “keep reading” link.

Hank Aaron, Beyond the Fences

From Slugger to Baseball Executive, Breaking Racial Barriers

[FINAL Edition]

The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) – Washington, D.C.

Author: Jim Naughton

Date: Jun 29, 1987

Start Page: d.01

Section: STYLE

Text Word Count: 3110

Full Text (3110 words)

Copyright The Washington Post Company Jun 29, 1987

When he was 19 years old, Henry Aaron sat on buses outside the restaurants where his teammates were eating dinner, counting on one of the white guys to bring him out a hamburger. That was Florida in 1953.

When he was 32, the Milwaukee Braves moved south. His children played with the white kids next door, until the white kids’ parents moved them away. That was Atlanta in 1966.

When he was 40 years old, he broke the most glamorous record in all of sports, Babe Ruth’s career home run mark. The hate mail poured in, hundreds of letters each week. As a rule, the death threats were issued over the telephone. That was America in 1974.

Henry Aaron is 53 now. For 11 years he has been vice president for player development with the Atlanta Braves. There are no other black executives in the game. This is baseball in 1987.

“They’ve never given us an opportunity to do anything other than play between the two white lines,” says Aaron, who will play in the National Old Timers Baseball Classic tonight at RFK Stadium. “I feel that if I had not ended up with 755 home runs, and let people know that I was interested in working with the minor league system, I would probably be as ousted as anyone else right now.”

Instead he finds himself a leader in the recently revitalized struggle to integrate baseball’s front offices. The once-retiring kid from Mobile, Ala., is an adviser to Jesse Jackson and the NAACP’s Benjamin Hooks and a confidant of Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. That may seem an unusual position for a man whose best-known skill is hitting a baseball, but the subtext of Aaron’s playing career is his gradual awakening as a black rights advocate.

“He is mindful of the civil rights movement and seeks to identify with it much the way that Jackie Robinson did,” says Jackson, invoking the name of the Dodger second baseman who integrated the game 40 years ago. “Henry assumes a level of responsibility for the community, and among athletes, that is rare.”

For Aaron, a reticent man by nature, the new role is difficult. “I wish that I was a pusher and a shover,” he says. “I wish I was more outgoing as far as demanding certain things. I think I could make things happen a lot quicker. But I’m not.”

Aaron grapples with a question few before him have answered successfully: how to convert stature as a baseball legend into influence as a baseball executive. For Aaron the problem is embodied by a statue he sees each day when he arrives for work at Fulton County Stadium.

The sculpture stands 20 feet tall-a bronze batsman on a marble base, bat wrapped behind him, hips twisted forward atop muscular legs. The hitter’s eyes follow an imaginary ball as it vanishes beyond a phantom fence. This is Aaron captured in his finest moment, April 8, 1974. The shot he hit off the Dodgers’ Al Downing is about to touch down in the Braves’ bullpen, making him the most prolific home run hitter in the history of the game.

The massive likeness makes him proud and uneasy. “It’s a great feeling, but it makes you wonder,” he says. “It’s kind of eerie, a person having a statue when he’s still alive.”

Baseball fans may prefer that Aaron remain as unambiguous as a home run, but he has work to complete that necessitates stepping down from the marble pedestal.

“I look back at my career and say, `Where would you be today if it hadn’t been for Jackie Robinson?’ ” he says. “Jackie Robinson took an awful lot for all of us to be where we are. I have to feel like the only thing that I can do to make him rest in peace is to try to fight as hard as I can for some of the things that he wanted to happen while he was living.”

The latest chapter of Hank Aaron’s life began on the evening of April 6. On “Nightline,” Al Campanis, Los Angeles Dodgers vice president of player personnel, suggested that blacks lacked the “qualifications” to manage major league baseball teams or work in the front offices.

The reaction from the black community was fast and forceful and Aaron was in the forefront. “I looked at what Mr. Campanis said as a slap in the face of every black kid in college,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a baseball player to go work in the front office. You know, {Commissioner of Baseball} Peter Ueberroth never played baseball in his life. {National League President A. Bartlett} Giamatti never played baseball in his life. These are guys who hold two of the highest offices in baseball. What’s to keep a black kid from Wharton or Stanford from doing the same thing?”

The Dodgers dismissed Campanis, but the damage had been done. Thirty-five years after baseball was integrated, his statements proved that there was racism at the highest levels of the game.

“What Mr. Campanis talked about is going to keep the focal point on breaking these barriers down,” Aaron says. “When he made the statement it was on `Nightline’ … and everybody was just sitting in front of their televisions with their mouths open saying, `What the hell is he talking about?’ This is what was discussed behind closed doors for a long time.”

The fact that he sat behind those closed doors put Aaron in a difficult position with other blacks.

“He carries a tremendous burden of responsibility everywhere he goes,” says Harry Edwards, the University of California sports psychologist who was recently named Ueberroth’s special adviser on racial issues. “Other blacks are asking him, one, `Why are you the only one?’ and two, `Can you help me get in?’ ”

Life on the inside hasn’t been easy.

“They didn’t believe that I was in charge of what I was in charge of,” Aaron says, referring to the baseball executives and agents he deals with. “Consequently, in writing letters, they wouldn’t write me letters, they would write somebody else letters talking about players in the minor leagues. They just didn’t understand that I was in charge of the minor league system.

“And in some cases right now they don’t believe it. Some of the agents start negotiating contracts and instead of talking to me they would call {Braves General Manager} Bobby Cox.”

Aaron’s new visibility has subjected his own record to closer scrutiny. His reviews as a director of player development are mixed at best.

“The Braves have one of the poorest organizations extant in recent years,” says Ben Henkey, who edits The Sporting News’ minor league directory. “When Hank opened his mouth there were people who jumped on him. Hank’s record since he entered the front office is nothing to write home about.”

Aaron’s critics point out that when Cox became the Braves’ general manager before the 1986 season, one of his first acts was to hire Aaron an assistant, who does much of the hands-on work with young players.

“Henry is in demand {as a speaker},” Cox says. “We like that. He represents the Braves very well.”

Aaron says the Braves’ farm system is “just about as strong as anybody else’s,” but acknowledges that his popularity as an ambassador for the game places heavy demands on his time.

He also rejects the notion that the performance of one black executive can be used to predict the performance of others. “We have the right to be failures as well as whites have the right to be failures,” he says.

Failure is not something with which he is well acquainted. In a 23-year career, Hank Aaron set some of the most prestigious offensive records in the game, including most home runs, most runs batted in, most extra base hits and most total bases.

Breaking Ruth’s record is what made him a legend, but it cast a long shadow. “Breaking the record hurt me in some ways because people don’t know the other things I’ve achieved in baseball,” he says.

It was his completeness, not his power, that first impressed baseball people-the ease with which he ran down a fly ball, the accuracy of his arm and his deadly batting eye. He made excellence look so easy that the uninitiated often thought he wasn’t really trying.

Though he was selected to play in the All-Star Game in 21 of his 23 seasons, Aaron, for most of his career, was an overlooked superstar. One reason was that he played in Milwaukee, one of the smallest media markets in baseball.

“Compared to New York, you would have to say that it was a backward city,” he says. “But I loved it because you could move around freely, people were very friendly. New York is a fast city. Coming from Mobile, Alabama, a little small city, I don’t know that I would have been able to cope with that.”

He also played in the shadow of two of the most romantic figures in recent baseball history, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

“If they had to choose one person in baseball to break Babe Ruth’s record, basically {it would have been} Mickey Mantle,” Aaron says. “If it had been somebody black it would have been Willie. And I probably would have been way down the line.”

Comparisons to Mays were frequent. Neither man liked them.

“Willie was a different type of player than I was,” Aaron says. “He was a showman more than I was. His cap flew off, he did some things. If I had to put my style of play in anybody and say I was like them, I would have to say {Joe} DiMaggio. DiMaggio never threw to the wrong base. He got to the ball, he caught it and he threw to the right base. He was not a glamor type. I guess I went about my business the same way.”

In 1966 the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta. This was a tumultuous time in race relations in Georgia. “He was the first black superstar in the South,” says Bob Hope, a former Braves promoter. “He took something that could have been very volatile and made it much more tame.”

Teammates remember a congenial but distant man with a strong sense of personal dignity. His friendships were few, but intense.

Former pitcher Pat Jarvis, now sheriff of De Kalb County in Georgia, says he could poke fun at Aaron and help him relax, a skill few people had. “You had to know his moods,” Jarvis says. “He was selective. I played with a lot of guys who couldn’t get to know him.”

Aaron particularly treasured the offseason, when he could escape with his baseball friends on hunting trips. Jarvis remembers one expedition into the Canadian Rockies with Tim McCarver, Steve Carlton and former Brave Joel Hoerner in the early ’70s.

“They had us up at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he says, “riding horses with our packs up the mountains. It was tough riding, and Hammer {Aaron} didn’t like it. When he got up there he said to me, `Jabbo, I have a lot of money and I think I’d pay most of it if I could get somebody with a helicopter to come take me down off this mountain.’

“He just stayed in camp for the five days we were up there. I finally got an elk, but Hammer just stayed in camp.”

Aaron came down from the mountain into a world of trouble. For two seasons, as he closed in on Ruth’s record, his life was miserable.

“I had to check him into different hotel rooms under false names,” says Donald Davidson, the Braves’ former traveling secretary. “I had to screen all his calls. We had a detective from Atlanta traveling with him because of all the threats. It didn’t bother him except when his family was concerned.”

Aaron’s confidant during this time was F.M. Williams, a white sports writer from the Nashville Tennessean. “He had boxes of letters every day, two and three full, and a lot of them were hate mail,” Williams says. “When it was over, he did admit that it bothered him. But he had the most even approach to everything I’ve ever seen.”

“The whole time, he never went out of his way to be flashy,” Hope says. “But he genuinely was just nice to people every day.”

In the midst of the home run chase, Aaron fell in love with and married Billye Suber. It was the second marriage for both. She was the widow of the Rev. Sam Washington, a civil rights activist. Friends say she helped Aaron understand that because of his accomplishments, what he said would be taken seriously.

“He never got involved much in the race issue till he got married the second time,” Williams says. “Billye, she was a little bit of a civil rights activist and she got Hank involved and he became a little more outspoken. Before, he let you know how he felt about it, but he didn’t say too much.”

But Billye’s role in her husband’s awakening has always been a touchy subject with Aaron. Once, when a local newspaper printed a photo caption that implied he was his wife’s mouthpiece, Aaron pushed a small basket of strawberries into the face of a reporter who worked for it.

When the record finally fell, Aaron says it “wasn’t even a thrill.”

“Here I am playing baseball in the good old United States of America and yet people thought that I was getting ready to rob the Manhattan Bank or I had killed the president of the United States, the way I was marching around for a year and a half with a police escort.

“All of these things, I had problems digesting and I had a lot of time to think about it and it made me very bitter. Here I am not doing anything at all, just playing baseball, and yet finding people who are so resentful toward me. What did I do?”

His bitterness was directed primarily at then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn because Kuhn didn’t attend the game in which Aaron hit his 715th home run. It was a feud that lasted six years and was primarily responsible for the public perception that Aaron was an embittered man. There was also a misunderstanding with the Braves over when Aaron would retire and whether he would join the Braves’ front office.

After the 1974 season he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he played two mediocre seasons, then retired. Meanwhile, the rift with the Braves healed. At the invitation of Braves owner and Cable News Network founder Ted Turner, he became director of player development in 1976.

“Here was a white southerner who gave me my chance,” Aaron says. “Ted Turner gave me an opportunity to come back to Atlanta and work in the front office. Also, I serve on the CNN board and I was put on the Braves’ board, so all these things happened because Ted didn’t care about the color of one’s skin.”

Aaron’s front office career peaked in 1982 when the Braves won the National League West division championship. The following year he announced his candidacy for the soon-to-be-vacated commissioner’s job.

“I don’t think that many people took me seriously,” he says. “I never did get an opportunity but once. I talked to the search committee and I was supposed to talk to them again and they passed me by.”

For the last four years Aaron continued his quiet efforts to bring blacks into the front office. Several weeks before the Campanis incident he told Benjamin Hooks that the NAACP should use Jackie Robinson’s anniversary as an opportunity to speak out against the paucity of blacks in front offices. “He was moving on this thing before there was even a forum,” Hooks says.

In the wake of Campanis’ statements, Aaron advocated that major league baseball teams adopt affirmative action plans. He also became the only baseball executive to endorse Jackson’s call for a Fourth of July boycott by black players, if those affirmative action plans are not put quickly into place.

“I can tell you that didn’t win him a lot of friends in Atlanta, an observer there said.

Nor have his aggressive defenses of two former black managers.

“Look at Frank Robinson and Larry Doby,” he says. “Look at the teams they had to manage. They could have taken Casey Stengel, God rest his soul, and all the rest of those geniuses and they couldn’t have made those teams win.”

It is not lack of “qualifications,” Aaron contends, that keeps blacks from getting managerial jobs.

“Pete Rose {of the Cincinnati Reds} has no qualifications when you talk about managing, and I still don’t think that Pete Rose manages the team,” he says. “He has one of the coaches who does a good job. The manager with the Yankees, Lou Piniella, he has no minor league credentials either.”

This is not the same Hank Aaron who said, in 1970, “I have always thought the way I could do the most for my race was through excelling in my conduct on and off the field as a player.”

“He is much more verbal,” says Jesse Jackson. “He’s very assertive and highly principled.”

And slightly optimistic. “I think, slowly, slowly, by progress, this thing is going to break down,” he says. “I see some movement in certain directions, but we still have a long way to go.”

On a recent plane trip Aaron fell into conversation with a young woman. “So one or two people came by and asked for my autograph and she said, `You’re somebody famous, aren’t you?’ he recalls. “I said, `No, not really.’

“She said, `Well, who are you?’ and I said, `Henry Aaron,’ and it didn’t faze her one bit. She didn’t look up and say, `Oh, you’re Hank Aaron.’ She just went back into our conversation.

When a few stewardesses descended for autographs, Aaron’s seatmate said, ” `Oh, I remember. You hit a lot of home runs, didn’t you?’

“The baseball people know, but just everyday people, they know that I did something, but they don’t know what it is. No matter who you are, eventually your myth will slowly die.”

What would please him would be to have made contributions to baseball that do not.

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