Technically speaking, Barry Bonds eclipsed Hank Aaron’s home run record in 2007.
But few people who follow baseball put Bonds — now under indictment for his involvement with steroids — in the same class as Aaron, or even in the same galaxy.
For most true fans, Aaron is and always will be the all–time home run king, passing Babe Ruth’s career total in 1974 while playing for the Atlanta Braves.
He did it while enduring a season-long barrage of racist death threats, and without the aid of the performance-enhancing drugs which now seem to be a permanent part of the game.
Images of that April day in the old Atlanta Stadium are among the most indelible moments in sports: There’s Aaron’s swing— short and quick to the ball, finishing with that signature flick of his powerful wrists. Then the head–down jog around the bases, followed by the surprised look on Aaron’s face as two young men run onto the diamond to shake his hand.
The last of the Negro League players to also play in the Major Leagues, after his playing career Aaron continued with the Braves as a director of their farm team efforts. He would go on to own several successful car dealerships throughout Georgia.
The baseball legend is famously reluctant to give interviews, and one of the ground rules for any talk with him is that he will not talk about the subject of steroids in baseball.
But last week we had the opportunity to have a brief phone conversation with Aaron, whose 76th birthday was Feb. 5.
This Saturday evening he will be on hand with the former owner of the Atlanta Braves, Ted Turner. They’ll both be inducted as Georgia Historical Society Trustees at the Society’s annual fundraising gala at the Hyatt.
What does being inducted as a Trustee mean to you?
Hank Aaron: It means an awful lot to me. It’s something that I suppose is following in the footsteps of so many heroes in Georgia, and me being actually born in Alabama and practically raised in Georgia, it means a lot to me.
What do you think is your greatest legacy to the state? Is is mostly the home run record, or what?
Hank Aaron: I think baseball, but I think more than that. Being involved with my foundation, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, I think that more people know about that now than they did before. It’s still a long ways from one of the wealthiest foundations, but we do an awful lot with kids.
What exactly does the foundation do?
Hank Aaron: We try to help children between the ages of 9 to 12, to get them started in the right direction, which I’ve always advocated, even when I played baseball. We don’t give large amounts of money, we give small stipends away, but we try to follow those who have demonstrated that they need help. We have kids in college now. I’m very proud of that.
That’s a very formative age for kids.
Hank Aaron: Yes, and all of us need to step up and give all our children a helping hand.
You and Ted Turner have a long history together. What’s the significance of his induction, and the fact that you’re both being honored at the same time?
Hank Aaron: It means a lot to me to be honored with Ted Turner, because Ted himself means so much not only to me, but he means so much to the people of Georgia. Ted actually gave me my start when I was still in baseball and I continued on to be the Braves’ farm director.
But there are a lot of things Ted has done that a lot of people really don’t understand. He was the first owner to have a black general manager. He has made people around him very, very wealthy. He’s done a lot for a lot of people.
Ted Turner is one of those people that’s sort of gotten criticism from all sides at one point or another. But he doesn’t seem to let it bother him.
Hank Aaron: Well, that’s part of life. If you’re not criticized by someone, you’re not doing your job. That’s OK. I don’t mind being criticized, because that means somebody’s paying attention to you. Ted has always been that way. He’s been criticized, but anytime that somebody can give that kind of money away, and to be in that position, he’s bound to be criticized.
Who are some ball players that impress you with their approach to life and how they carry themselves, off the diamond as well as on it?
Hank Aaron: Let me put it this way. Most of the time, athletes — and I’m talking about baseball, football, whatever it is — are doing some great things.
And just because one decides to stray, doesn’t necessarily mean that a whole bunch of people are straying. I can’t put my finger on one, but a lot of us are involved in a lot of different things. And we have to understand that when you’re in the barrel with crabs, you gotta stay in the bottom until you’re sure you can get to the top the right way.
In addition to your sports career, you’ve had a successful post–sports career in the business world. What are some lessons you’ve learned from that success?
Hank Aaron: I think I’ve learned from the person who’s going to be inducted with me. I learned an awful lot from Ted Turner. When I retired from baseball, I had absolutely no place to go. And he took it upon himself to give me the job of being the farm director.
And then he put me on his own board, and I had a chance to rub shoulders with some very successful people who were also in business. And I learned from them. So I tried the same philosophy they did — just tried to do what is right and things will come out.
The number of African American youth involved in baseball is declining dramatically. Do you agree that this is a real decline, and if so what can be done about it?
Hank Aaron: It’s a serious problem, and I certainly have talked to other people who are concerned with it. I’ve spoken to the commissioner of baseball, I’ve had several conversations with the Braves, and I’ve tried to make them understand that there’s a serious problem.
Whatever we’re doing, we’re not doing the right thing, because there certainly are not enough African American ballplayers getting to the big leagues. Like everything else, there’s competition out there, with football and basketball.
Georgia Historical Society Gala
Honoring Henry Aaron and Ted Turner
Where: Hyatt Regency, 2 W. Bay St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
Cost: $275 per person