NOT FLASHY Sporting News Conversation:
With his reserved demeanor—and talk of playing at 175 pounds in his prime—the former home run king provides a stark contrast to the sluggers of the steroids era Photo by Greg Foster for SN
t’s a long way from the executive offices at Turner Field to the press box cafeteria—especially when frosty winds are lashing the concourse and your 75-year-old living legend-turned-navigator is lost. Up or down? “I’m not walking up those stairs,” Henry Louis Aaron says. In due time, Aaron is huddled over a freshly made bowl of chicken-and-rice soup. As he swallows his first bite, a plaintive voice emanates from a flatscreen TV overhead: It seems Manny
Ramirez has turned down a one-year, $25 million offer from the Dodgers. What’s the greatest run producer in baseball history to do but shake his head and take another spoonful? Hammerin’ Hank—who made a career-high $250,000 in his final season, 1976—never has been one to stir the pot. “Forever humble to a fault,” his wife of 35 years, Billye, calls him. The longtime Braves executive and champion of Atlanta’s disadvantaged youth spoke with Sporting News’ Steve Greenberg.
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SN: Seventy-five—is that old? AARON: Yes. They don’t allow you to go that fast on the expressway. SN: True, but how do you feel? AARON: I feel great. But I work out every day. I come to the ballpark and I have a trainer. I run on the treadmill for about half an hour. I lift weights. I go in the pool once a week and do aerobics in the pool. SN: Do you still have that thunder in your hands?
AARON: They’re still strong, but not enough to do any damage. SN: When was the last time you
swung a bat?
AARON: It had to be 10 or 15 years ago. I didn’t pick the bat up to swing at a ball. I just picked the bat up and laid it back down pretty quickly. SN: The footage of No. 715—with all due respect, you look old and slow rounding the bases. That’s the enduring image many younger baseball fans have of you. Do you see that and think, You should’ve seen me when?
AARON: You play the game for a long time and eventually can’t do the same things you always did. I can’t say I was the same player when I hit 715 that I’d been 10 years before because I wasn’t as good. Mother Nature takes her toll. SN: For those who think of you as a
big, burly slugger, that’s not really what you were. How would you describe the physical athlete you were at your best?
AARON: At my best, I weighed 175 pounds. No more than 180. If I got to 185, I got too big across the chest and shoulders. When I was 175 pounds, I could do all the things I wanted to do: go out and play a doubleheader, play 10 straight days without getting tired. That was when I was at my best.
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SN: You were a pipsqueak compared with
the sluggers of today.
JUST ONE QUESTION For Billye Aaron, Hank’s wife of 35 years:
At 75, does your husband still look in the mirror and see a baseball legend? “I don’t know that he ever did. He thinks of baseball as a vehicle that got him to where he is. He has always been Henry Aaron the man, the husband, the father, the community participant. And I think they don’t come any finer. He has a tremendous gift for humanity. He does what he can to advance the cause of mankind. He’s humble to a fault. He’s a compassionate person, and he’s passionate about those things he cares about. Most people know he’s very much a private person, quiet, soft-spoken, but he feels deeply about things.”
AARON: I don’t understand it. I try to understand it. Each person has to give an account of what his body can and can’t do. But, being a baseball player, I don’t think that being overweight is going to help you at all. You’ve got to be at your peak. I looked at the player we (signed) from the Dodgers (in January), Derek Lowe. He looked to me like the epitome of a guy that was in tip-top shape for a pitcher. I remember Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Bob Buhl, some of the great pitchers that I played with—thin, slim and strong across the shoulders. Looking at him kind of brought back those memories. SN: Who’s the best player in the game today? AARON: Whew. Let me put it this way: The players you have now could probably be better if they would do certain things. I love to watch Ryan Howard hit, but he’s not going to steal a base for you. He might hit two home runs for you. The kid that plays shortstop for Philadelphia, (Jimmy) Rollins. Here’s a kid who has all the ability, but sometimes he kind of loses focus on what he’s doing. The player I think I like the best is the kid over at second base for Philly—(Chase) Utley. I love him. He’s always got things under control. He’s a throwback.
SN: Who’s the best player ever? AARON: I can’t say who the best player ever is because I didn’t play with some of the guys. I know in my era, we had a lot of great players. Willie Mays. We had Ernie Banks. We had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale. The reason I’m naming them is not just because I played back then but because those guys (finished what they started). Nine times out of 10, if Koufax started, if Spahn started, he went nine innings. And we had a lot of great ballplayers back then. SN: A whole lot of people—maybe most people—say Willie Mays was the best player of your era. Should he come before you in the pecking order?
AARON: I don’t know. He was flamboyant in what he did. SN: You are first all-time in RBIs, extra-
base hits and total bases; third in hits; fourth in runs scored. You were named to 24 All-Star teams. No one else has numbers like yours.
AARON: I was not flashy. If you saw me Monday, I might go out and hit three base hits, a home run. Tuesday I might have two base hits, a home run. I did it on a more consistent basis than anybody else. But other than that, I didn’t try to catch the ball down below my waist. Willie was very flamboyant. He did a lot of things that people would pay to come see.
AARON (1974): AP
SN: What did you weigh at the end? AARON: About 195, 197. I was getting ready to tip the scales over 200.
Aaron was 40 when he broke Babe Ruth’s record with his 715th career home run.
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JUST ONE QUESTION For Reggie Jackson, Hall of Fame slugger:
Where is Hank Aaron in the pecking order of the greatest players of all time? “The guy who hit the most home runs in the history of baseball is, for me, Henry Aaron. And I know what Barry Bonds did, but I don’t quite tip my cap there all the way. The greatest pitchers that I’ve talked to—guys like Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver—say that Aaron was the most feared hitter of the most feared pitchers. As far as all-around players, it’s Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. When you leave the stats in, the greatest player of all time is Henry Aaron. I’ll leave it at that.”
and breaking the record like that. And once Barry Bonds started inching close to my record, he started receiving the same kind of thing on my behalf. You have your heroes in sports, and you want them to stay like myths—on top. … I have learned how to forget. I’ve told a lot of people that a person who can’t learn that is a miserable person because you walk around all your life hating people. You’re not built for that. SN: Were you hurt by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s decision not to be in attendance for No. 715?
AARON: I was hurt. That’s still a little hurtful to me. Everything else, I’ve come to understand. But about that, I still have my doubts. I couldn’t understand why the commissioner could not have been there. I don’t know what his explanation was. As big a milestone as that was, I feel he should have been with me.
Aaron on Mays: “Willie was very flamboyant. He did a lot of things that people would pay to come see.”
SN: I didn’t even mention the 755 home runs. Is that the number you’re most proud of?
MAYS:AP; AARON: SN ARCHIVES; AARON (1976): AP
AARON: I’m proud of all of them. I had to sit down every year and ask myself, “What do you need to do to make the ultimate contribution to your club? Do you need to steal bases? Have a high batting average?” I always felt if I could be responsible for batting in over 100 runs that I had done very well for my team. And if I did that, I felt that my teammates could do well. I think batting average is so fictitious. You can have a high batting average for the season and have two home runs, four home runs, pretty much no runs batted in. And I’ve seen players do that.
SN: Did the hatred that erupted from your pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record change your perception of your fellow Americans?
AARON: At one point, yes. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I thought, What in the world am I doing that sportswriters and other people despise what I’m doing? But the more I pursued the record, the more I (decided) to give people an opportunity. Babe Ruth was a hero to most sportswriters. They couldn’t conceive the idea of someone coming along
SN: Decades later, you chose not to be present as Barry Bonds chased, and eventually broke, your home run record. Why? AARON: The reason is simply because I didn’t want to get back into that whole realm. He was chasing the record and needed to have all the accolades that he could have. I didn’t need to distract him. A lot of people read the wrong thing into it. I had told a very good friend of mine, and he could vouch for this—Joe Morgan—that I was not going to be present, and it had nothing to do with Barry Bonds. I played (against) Barry’s father. I don’t despise him. I don’t know him as well as some people. That was his year. It was his thing. His family needed to be present, not me.
to get involved in that. I do know Barry’s one of the few ballplayers I’ve seen that can turn a game around, do some things people felt could never be done. SN: Alex Rodriguez surely is another. What’s your reaction to his admission that he used steroids?
AARON: I don’t have one. I’ve tried to stay away from that issue, really. It has been going on such a long time that it doesn’t mean anything to me one way or another. SN: Would you have been tempted by
steroids? Can you imagine it?
AARON: I don’t know. I probably would’ve had as much temptation as anybody else. I’m not exempted from that. I probably would have been tempted to do it. The reason for that is a lot of dollar bills. A lot of money was floating out there. You have to remember that if a young kid was coming up in that era, and he’s sitting over in the corner and looking over at Barry’s chiseled physique, with muscles like Popeye’s, he’s going to say, “Hey, what do I have to do to start looking like that? Start hitting home runs? Start pitching like somebody else?”
SN: Do you think Barry
Bonds used performanceenhancing drugs?
AARON: I have no idea. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t want
Aaron played his best when he didn’t have the extra bulk that came with age. He packed plenty of power into those 175 pounds.
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Hank Aaron SN: Did you ever use amphetamines—greenies, it seems they were called?
AARON: I never had anything. I didn’t make enough money to buy anything but a loaf of bread. I came up at $5,000 a year. The most I ever made was $250,000. That was pretty good money, actually, my last two years. SN: And when you broke into
the big leagues—the excitement, the pressure, the unwelcoming moments. What one word best captures it all?
AARON: Scary. I was scared. I didn’t know whether I belonged. I had a great year in Class A ball, but that’s as high as I played in the minor leagues. I guess you could say I moved quicker than I thought I was going to move. Back then, they could bury you in the minor leagues for seven or eight years, but for some reason I was in the right place at the right time. SN: In 2008, you had more good
timing when you sold your many car dealerships “about four months before the crush came,” as you have put it. Have you always been a good businessman?
AARON: I was very good, and I still am. I own 27 fast-food restaurants. I’m a very good businessman because I approach it the same way I do baseball. … You can’t go out every day and get a base hit. The fans out in the stands
pay $5 and you walk up to the plate and strike out, they boo you. Next day you hit a home run, that same fan who booed you stands up and claps. Same way in business. If somebody comes to your dealership and you make a mistake or do something wrong, you apologize. If they want to raise hell, they’ll raise hell. But you treat them with respect. Without the fans, there’s no baseball or any business.
Young says Aaron is giving with both his time and treasure.
SN: Baseball is doing well by
economic measures, but football is king by every measure. Long ago, could you have imagined growing old in an era when baseball was not No. 1?
AARON: Baseball should be responsible for that itself. Not to take anything away from football because I love watching football—and basketball—but baseball has sat back and said, “Hey, we don’t need to do some of the things football has done.” I remember when I was in Milwaukee and the Green Bay Packers used to come to Milwaukee and play one or two exhibition games a year. There was nobody at the ballpark the first couple of years. Lo and behold, football started showing up on television, exposing itself in the college ranks, with analysts explaining the game to people, and it moved up another notch. Baseball, we stayed in one area and didn’t expand people’s game knowledge.
Aaron allowed Bonds to have his space when Bonds was chasing No. 756.
You don’t know [Hank Aaron] like I know [Hank Aaron] By Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Congressman and one of Aaron’s best friends for more than 40 years In 1965, I was a little anxious about how the Braves were going to be received in Atlanta because we were just into the desegregation of public accommodations. I was standing in front of a hotel when the Braves parade went past. There were a couple of good ol’ boys from outlying districts of Georgia who really clapped when Hank went past. One of them said: “You know, if we’re going to be a big league team, we’ve got to be a big league town. He’s going to have to live wherever he wants to live.” And it shocked the hell out of me. We really became good friends after Dusty Baker came to town as a young center fielder in 1968. Dusty’s mother had asked Hank to look out for him. Hank pretty much arranged a get-together for all the big-shot black businessmen and political leaders in town to meet this kid so we could welcome Dusty into the community and let him know there were people he could count on if he needed help. I thought that was a very generous thing for Hank to do. For the past 10 or 15 years, my family and some other families have spent New Year’s Eve at Hank and Billye’s home. We’ll have dinner, sing a few hymns, have prayers and testimony—and a glass of champagne—and ring in the new year. As for the food, it’s always the same old delicious Southern dinner: black-eyed peas, cornbread, greens, chitlins, neckbones, fried chicken and fish.
Every time there’s some kind of fundraiser in town for anything, everyone wants to auction off a Hank Aaron signed baseball. He’s always extremely gracious. It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said to me: “There are so few people in the world young people look up to. If you ever get to a place where people want your autograph or to take a picture of you, you ought to consider it an honor.” Hank looks at it that way. It doesn’t seem to be a chore. He’s the same way with our city’s kids. Anything a young person asks him to do, he will go out of his way to get it done. The only time I’ve seen him be a little awkward was at Tyler Perry’s opening of a new movie studio a couple of miles from where we live. He sat me at the table with elected officials. He sat Hank at the table with the professional athletes. Hank was seated next to—would you believe it?—Barry Bonds. I kidded Hank about it later. I said, “Uh-oh. What did you talk about?” He said, “It was OK. We’re fine. We talked about life.” — As told to Steve Greenberg
BONDS: MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / AP; AARON WITH YOUNG: MARK J. TERRILL / AP
Everybody tries to get Hank to talk baseball, but he would much rather talk politics or business or, especially, problems with young people. When he sold his businesses, he put a considerable chunk of his own money into his Chasing the Dream Foundation. They started out hoping to guarantee 755 kids a new lease on life. They basically adopted them and were helping them get through school, go to college, find jobs. They were so successful in that, that they’re now well beyond 755; they’re getting up on 3,000 now.
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SN: When was the last time you spoke
with Michael Vick?
‘I have learned how to forget. I’ve told lot of people that a person who can’t learn that is a miserable person because you walk around all your life hating people. You’re not built for that.’
AARON: I haven’t talked with him since he’s been in jail, but I saw him before he went to jail and had a long talk with him. He was concerned with forgiveness. He came by my house, and I sat down and talked with him, just casual. … He’s got too much talent to lay around. This boy was very gifted. Still is, I’m sure. He’s just like everybody else: He made a mistake and he’s paid for it. I hope the country and the NFL will just forget about it. He was young and also very, very rich. That’s an ingredient for failure. You can get yourself in a lot of trouble.
intelligent and don’t let anything stand in your way, you can do anything. It meant an awful lot not only to me, at my age, but to young kids—kids going to second, third, fourth, fifth grades. This is when you can really get them, especially black kids, to see that just because you’re black doesn’t mean you can’t move from where you are. The world is yours if you want it and work hard for it.
SN: Does baseball need more black
SN: Do kids still see you today and say,
AARON: Definitely. No question about it—on the field and in the front office—because I think it has gone 99 degrees backwards. We don’t have the connection like we should have. You look at the commissioner’s office and you’ve got a lot of black kids working in high-profile jobs. But after that, that’s it. Here in Atlanta, we don’t have anyone but myself.
SN: What did Barack Obama’s election mean to you?
AARON: It meant everything to me—that the country and the world itself has finally moved into a new dimension, in some ways gotten to a point where we accept a man, as Dr. King would say, for his character, not his color. It meant if you are very
“Wow, it’s Hank Aaron!” Is that going away?
AARON: Let me put it this way. The house that I own now, my wife and I bought it the year before I broke Babe Ruth’s record. We’ve been in that area, the Southwest part of town, a black area—Andrew Young is there, two or three other civil rights leaders are over there—ever since. Some people say, “Why don’t you move to Buckhead?” That doesn’t appeal to me. It’s a good area, and I love going there to eat, but I need to stay where I am. Because when I walk around, when I go out there and watch guys play tennis on my court by my house, those guys talk to me like I ain’t nobody. But they respect who I really am. I stopped playing a few years ago, but I keep the court nice for them. What is a tennis court without players? They come out and play, I go out and watch
them, and we start joking, having fun. They talk to me just like I’m one of their brothers. SN: You’ll just have to stay there, then. AARON: Forever and ever.
JUST ONE QUESTION For Ryan Howard, Phillies All-Star:
Do the top sluggers in the game today hold a candle to Hank Aaron? “First of all, he’s either the best home run hitter ever or he’s second to Babe Ruth. If Hank Aaron played today, there’s no doubt in my mind he’d still be able to do everything he did then. He wouldn’t even have to gain weight. He had brute strength. The way that he swung the bat—with the power he had just in his hands and forearms—he would be more than fine. But are there guys today who could have played back in the day and done what the great sluggers did? I say probably so.”
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