This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune on February 24, 1981 when Hank Aaron, several years removed from his baseball career, came to Minnesota to speak at Minnesota State University (then named Mankato State) and St. Thomas.
MANKATO — Henry Aaron is scared. There is, he says, injustice in the world, and the baseball-imposed insulation he experienced for nearly a quarter century did not prepare him for all this. He isn't bitter. He is reflective. "I'm very happy," he said so very softly. "I'm about as happy as I can be, I guess." At 47, he is growing.
In his hotel room he is writing his name on baseballs. People will cherish those artifacts simply for his signature. They will exalt him and flatter him and be superficially kind to him because he could once swing a baseball bat like no other human ever did.
"I'm getting fatter," he said, fastening with difficulty the top button of his white shirt. He is readying himself for three days of speeches and questions and answers and banquets and requests. He is in residence through Wednesday at Mankato State University, a guest of the student union. He'll travel to St. Paul to speak at the College of St. Thomas. And now, looking into his Holiday Inn mirror, it is confirmed that he weighs 30 points more than the 185 he carried when he played, just five years ago. Still his shoulders and back scream strength, his wrists are like logs and his hair remains jet black.
He is an executive now, director of player development for the Atlanta Braves, head of the minor leagues for broadcast magnate Ted Turner's baseball operation, and the highest ranking Black front office worker in the land. He is negotiating minor league contracts on the phone and he is tough. "You know, I've got a budget to keep, too," he said. "I've got people to answer to."
There is more than one Hank Aaron.
There is the public Aaron. Wind him up. See the Hank Aaron Machine perform. "I try to do the best I can. I try to be as entertaining and cooperative as I can be."
It is as if he has no name when he talks, as he did Monday, to the MSU Athletic Boosters luncheon, or when he's interviewed on a local radio station or when he tells students at North Mankato Jr. High School to stay off drugs and listen to their teachers and love their parents.
“This is my country. I was born and raised here and I want to see it much better. I feel like I've got one life to live and I don't know what's going to happen”
He is just "Number 44". He is the only Black face here today. He is a person attached to an autograph, to a myth, really. Hear him describe his 714th and 715th homers. Hear him tell stories he has told a zillion times to a zillion somehow thrilled, wide-eyed admirers. Watch him politely tolerate the non-stop artificial deference.
"That's the way life is," he said. "If you got something, you get more. If you don't got nothing, they step on you. You learn to live with it."
Aaron, the walking baseball museum, is not confined only to sports now. This is another Aaron. "My values have changed. Before I was strictly baseball. Kind of like a horse with a harness on. You know, you put a harness on a horse and you look straight ahead. I was a baseball player for 23 years and thought nothing but baseball, from January to January. But there are an awful lot of problems in the world other than baseball. Baseball is a minor thing compared to some of the things that exist in this world and it's too bad I didn't see these things when I was playing. There's a lot of injustice in the world."
In 1973 and 1974, when Aaron closed in on Babe Ruth's sacred career home run record of 714, Aaron says he changed. He related that period as "when I was going through the home run thing."
"I was hurt during those years," he said. By sportswriters, by racist hate mail, by the loss of privacy he learned to cherish in Milwaukee and Atlanta, non-media towns where every ballplayer's move is not examined. Suddenly, because he had hit so many baseballs out of so many stadiums, when Aaron spoke, people, listened. They listened so hard, he says, that they sometimes heard things he never said. He decided to keep talking anyway.
When baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn neglected to attend the occasion of Aaron's 715th home run on April 8, 1974, Aaron did not forget. He will not forget. Aaron saw Kuhn's act as symbolic of a baseball hierarchy insensitive to this accomplishments and to those of the game's Black participants. Last year Aaron returned the snub when he refused to accept a plaque from Kuhn commemorating the home run. The relationship between the game's greatest slugger and the industry's chief executive is chilly.
"He's doing a good job lately," Aaron said of Kuhn, with a wry twinkle in his eyes. " 'Course he hasn't made many decisions either. … He gave me the opportunity to focus on the fact that there was injustice in baseball."
Meanwhile, Aaron has been vigilant in his position that not enough former Black players are being hired in non-player jobs. On this point, his analysis comes from a personal history that, unfortunately, has been buried by the glare of his on-the-field accomplishments.
Not only did he break Babe Ruth's career home run record, retiring with 755 major league homers, he also holds or shares 21 major league records, including most games played (3,298), most runs batted in (2,297), most at-bats (12,364). He had single seasons that were staggering: 1957 — .332, 118 runs scored, 44 homers, 132 RBI; 1959 — .355, 223 hits, 39 homers, 123 RBI; 1963 — 44 homers, 31 stolen bases; 1971 — age 37, .327, 47 homers, 118 RBI.
The personal history cannot be quantified. It can only be understood. His career straddled American social eras. When he joined the then-Boston Braves' Eau Claire, Wis., farm club in 1952, Negro Leagues existed, Black people had been in the white major leagues for only five years. In St. Louis, visiting Black players could not eat at the hotel restaurant with their white teammates. Didn't matter anyway, he says. Black and white players never socialized. Stadium seating remained segregated in some cities.
Three decades later he is fifth in line on the Braves' table of organization. Now he is multi-dimensional. Now he prefers that "you go to the library" to discover the story of "Hammerin' Hank." He agrees that player salaries are "outrageous,", but he does not begrudge the players their potential free agency. He says he was paid well when he played, too. He wants to remain close to the game and is adamant about being directly involved. He says there's nothing complicated about his paper work.
Mostly, though, he's got other things than baseball on his mind.
He lives in Atlanta. He is Black. He talks about the climate of that city where 18 Black children have been found dead. "All of these kids have been killed because they were poor, from an area where both parents were working or divorced, and when you start talking about baseball players making $2 million a year, these people don't want to know anything about it. … It's a very frightened city and imp's a city that could explode in a minute. If the killer or killers are ever caught and they're with the Ku Klux Klan it could make things very bad."
He lives in the United States. He is Black. "I feel like some of the things President Reagan is going to cut out with social programs is going to create more crime, people killing each other. If a person can't find ways to make a living, he'll find the next thing he can do and that's take from people who have. … You can't cut out certain programs, education, for instance. When you tell a kid he can't get an education, you're not hurting the kid, you're hurting the country."
He has not missed playing. He spends his spare time with his wife, Billye Williams, a former Atlanta television personality and civil rights activist. He is comfortable. He is not satisfied.
"This is my country. I was born and raised here and I want to see it much better. I feel like I've got one life to live and I don't know what's going to happen," Aaron, in a tasty herring-bone suit, said, signing more baseballs for more worshipers. "I've got five children and if I don't speak out it's like me telling them, 'Hey, keep your mouth closed. Be like your old man.' I don't want them to do that. This is the United States, say what you think. It may hurt somebody. It may not. … I'm not going to ever think I'm going to please everybody."