This April 8th, when the Braves open their first home stand, there will be a ceremony honoring Hank Aaron on the 40th anniversary of becoming baseball’s home run king. He has done much more than we can ever give back. And at 80, he stays in shape and still is as smart and savvy as he’s always been.
I was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium 40 years ago. In fact, I was the usher in left field, a teenager who stood there with many police officers surrounding me, and watched Hank take that swing into immortality. Hank loved pulling the ball and the police presence was heavy in the area and they wanted to escort the lucky fan who caught the ball out of the stadium, for safety reasons. Luckily, the ball fell shy of the wall and Tom House, a Braves pitcher, caught the ball in the bullpen area. The fans were delirious as the stadium erupted when Hank hit number 715 and he earned his way into the hearts of fans across the nation.
Hank endured a lot on that chase of Babe Ruth, and several books have been written about that period in history, but I know that event cemented my love for baseball and that love has never waned for one moment.
He certainly is in the top 5 of all players to ever play the game. He did it without steroids or any other drugs, just sheer power and with the grace and dignity of what a legend should be: Honorable, Respectful, Humble and with a love for other people.
Aaron still works out at the stadium three times a week, in the early morning hours, before everybody arrives. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves manager, says he chats with him for five or six minutes every time he runs into him, but adds, “I don’t want to bother him. But it makes you feel good seeing him. I love having him around.”
Aaron still plays a role in the Braves organization, but these days it’s mostly consultative type work. He used to run the organizations minor league operation but has slowed down considerably since. He had outside business interests that proved very lucrative for him, but now just stays in shape and keeps his mind sharp, as well. He also serves as a baseball ambassador for his good friend and commissioner Bud Selig.
One day, 15 years ago, then Braves skipper Bobby Cox arrived at the stadium at 7:15 in the morning to prepare for an afternoon game. He heard several cracks and wondered who would be there so early taking batting practice. It was Aaron, age 65, ripping line drives off of a pitching machine. Fellow teammate and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro believes Hank may not be able to hit 44 home runs now, saying, “But maybe 22!”
Forty years have passed since that night in Atlanta and the game has endured a lot during those years. With people like Aaron, who played the game the right way, the game will endure forever. Despite some bad apples, it is a sport that has passed through the generations; from moms and dads to sons and daughters. His legacy will ensure that the game thrives.