Hammerin’ Hank Aaron at the LBJ Library

HankAaron

“The last year before I broke the record … I don’t talk about that much, because it bothers me,” Hank Aaron told a packed crowd at the LBJ Library on Thursday night, noting that his college-aged children needed escorts to walk home from class in 1973. When he traveled with the Atlanta Braves, he had to stay in a separate area of the hotel from his teammates because of safety concerns.”I just felt like the whole system was backwards, and it wasn’t because of me breaking the record. It was because of the color my skin.”

Aaron was referring to the drawn-out chase to 714 home runs, a record he broke in 1974. During an hourlong Q&A with LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove, Aaron discussed his humble upbringing in Mobile, Alabama, his distinguished baseball career, and importantly, the vicious racism he faced as he dared to challenge the vaunted Babe Ruth.

“It was a tremendous relief,” Aaron said, of the moment the chase for the record was over. The Atlanta Braves slugger had fallen one home run short of Ruth’s record the year before, hitting number 713 in the penultimate game of the 1973 season, meaning he had an entire offseason to receive death threats and hate mail from bigots while he waited.

Updegrove read a quote from Aaron, a reflection from after he had broken Ruth’s record: “What should have been the best time of my life was the worst, all because I was a black man. Something was taken from me that I’ve never gotten back.”

Updegrove asked Aaron if he knew that number 715 was “the one” the instant it came off his bat.

“Oh yeah,” Aaron said, to laughs. “When you hit so many of them, you got a feeling.”

Hank Aaron was many things as a ballplayer: consistency personified, a beloved teammate, and, when he retired, the all-time home run king. Though the steroids era in Major League Baseball has relegated Aaron to second place in the latter achievement, the thunderous applause when he denounced those players’ illicit statistics showed that many believe he still holds that crown.

When Updegrove asked about the records posted during the steroids era, Aaron took a firm stance, and the crowd applauded in agreement.

“They cheated,” Aaron said, “and they should pay for it.”

Updegrove asked about an asterisk being placed on the records, to which Aaron had a better idea.

“I think they outta be forgotten about,” Aaron said, to immediate applause. “They’re not legitimate. I played the game 23 years and I know how hard it is to hit 20 home runs, 30 home runs. What we were seeing back in the era which you are referring to, players were hitting 65, 70 home runs … that is impossible to do.”

As dominant and determined as Aaron was on the field, he was just as powerful off it. In addition to being a strong civil rights voice, Aaron is also an accomplished businessman, a major philanthropist, and was one of the first minorities to hold an upper-level management position in Major League Baseball. A role model in his community then and now, he scoffs at the Charles Barkleys of the pro-sports world who refuse to step up.

“I get angry when I hear them say they are not role models,” Aaron said. “Because it is tough for you to tell me that [when] kids see an athlete with tobacco in his pocket that he don’t think the reason that athlete is being successful is simply because of that, or because of something else he shouldn’t be doing. We all have some responsibility to our children.”

In a baseball sense, it was a touch ironic that Augie Garrido, college baseball’s premier purveyor of small-ball, introduced the slugger Aaron at the top of the program. Garrido, though, while recognizing Aaron’s incredible achievements, highlighted the struggles he endured as an African-American and the work he has done outside the game.

“The man I’m introducing tonight, on the top of his bio, it says ‘civil rights activist,’ and ‘baseball,’ in that order,” Garrido said. “He has changed the world for the better.”

You can watch the entire event below, or click here.

Photo by Lauren Gerson.

 

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