By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports
- Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record in 1974.
- Says he was happy for Barry Bonds when he broke the record.
- Despite the huge salaries, he's fine with not playing in this era.
Hank Aaron, surrounded by hatred and bigotry in the Deep South, refused to leave when people wanted him gone.
He broke the record many in America didn't want him to break.
Now he speaks at a time when it's just as easy to be silent.
Aaron, 79, a man who symbolizes excellence and grace, will forever be remembered as the baseball player who broke one of sports' greatest records, hitting his 715th homer in 1974 to eclipse Babe Ruth's all-time mark.
Yet the greatest feat in his lifetime, Aaron says, is a barrier broken in Washington.
"I never thought we'd ever have a black president," Aaron tells USA TODAY Sports. "President Obama has done such a tremendous job. ...He just has been unable to get what he needs to be moved at the level it should be moved. My wife and I pray that people will understand that."
Aaron had received death threats and constant hate letters when he broke Ruth's sacred record April 8, 1974.
"People were not ready to accept me as a baseball player," Aaron says. "The easiest part of that whole thing, chasing the Babe's record, was playing the game itself. The hardest thing was, after the game was over, dealing with the press. They could never understand. Here comes a young black player from Alabama, he's challenging one of the most prestigious records in the world, and they couldn't handle it."
Aaron wants to be known not as one of the greatest players who ever lived, with 755 homers and a record 2,297 RBI and 25 All-Star Game appearances, but as a great American.
"I am very proud to be an American," Aaron says, "This country has so much potential, I'd just like to see things better, and I think it will be.
"I hope (young adults) understand they are very lucky to be born in this country. The most important thing they need to understand is that when they go to school, go to college and graduate, it's to make a contribution to this country."
Aaron is aware of the problems that still plague this country. There are only two African Americans in the U.S. Senate, both of whom were appointed. The unemployment rate for African Americans (as of April) is 13.2%. He believes there can't be a level playing field in the corporate world until there are more black CEOs and presidents in the boardrooms.
"I still think we have a ways to go," Aaron says, "to make people understand. We still have problems. In all walks of life."
Even in Major League Baseball, which has three African-American managers and one general manager among its 30 teams.
"In baseball, I'd love to see black ownership," Aaron says. "People say, well, we have Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner), but that's a carrot, really."
While Aaron is grateful that Jackie Robinson cleared the way when he broke the color barrier in 1947, he wishes it had happened earlier.
"Too bad integration didn't come sooner, because there were so many ballplayers that could have made the major leagues," he says. "That's why you look back, and not to take away anything from Babe Ruth or some of those other guys, they didn't play against the greatest ballplayers in the world."
Aaron says he owes a lot to Major League Baseball, but he also believes MLB owes African Americans a greater avenue for participation.
"I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African Americans," Aaron says. "Let's face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.
"And to see where it is today, he certainly would be disappointed. You look at baseball. The African American (segment) is not one they're concerned with."
African Americans accounted for 7.7% of players on MLB rosters on opening day, the lowest mark since the Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate its roster in 1959, according to a USA TODAY Sports study.
"A lot of people want their kids to play baseball but can't afford it financially," Aaron said. "Today, black kids don't have places to play. They don't have the bats, balls, gloves. They don't have coaches.
"I think Major League Baseball has to reach back in their pocket and do something to help these kids. I know they're trying to, but I know there's so much room for improvement."
HAPPY FOR BONDS
Aaron's record stood until Barry Bonds eclipsed it in 2007, invoking a different type of controversy. Bonds broke the record amid allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. In 2011, three counts of perjury against Bonds from grand jury testimony in 2003 regarding steroid use were dropped after a federal jury failed to reach a verdict, but his appeal of a felony conviction of obstruction of justice is pending.
"That is mind-boggling," Aaron says, "when you think about all of the guys who have been accused of cheating and didn't necessarily have to cheat. If you cheat and you lie, the public holds you accountable."
Despite the controversy over the record, Aaron says he is happy for Bonds. Aaron also said his absence when Bonds broke the record was misperceived; he purposely stayed away out of respect for Bonds.
"I was glad he did it," Aaron says. "I sent a congratulatory note. It was his day. It was not my day.
"I had already been through it. I didn't want to go through that again."