ATLANTA -- The humble legend that is Hank Aaron moves around this town and others with folks whispering and pointing in his direction. "It makes you feel good," he said with his distinctive baritone chuckle. "They don't know I can hear them, but some people will say, 'Is that really Hank Aaron? I thought he was dead.'"
That chuckle evolved into a roaring laugh.
At 81, Aaron's knees are creaky, and so are his hips, but he is alive and mostly well, thank you. Which brings us to this: When voting on MLB.com ends Friday for baseball's Greatest Living Players, Aaron's name will rank near the top. (In the results released earlier this week, Aaron had the highest vote total.)
"They called me last week from the Baseball Commissioner's Office to give me an indication that things were going in that direction," Aaron said, from his long-time home in Atlanta, where his post-playing career with the Braves has become nearly as prolific as his 23 baseball seasons.
Despite 755 career homers, Aaron never struck out more than 100 times during a season. He won three Gold Gloves in right field during the era of Roberto Clemente. He also wasn't a snail in spikes. "I didn't have the stolen base marks of Lou Brock, and I wasn't an Olympic-type sprinter, but I'll tell you this: I could steal whenever I got ready," Aaron said, referring to his success rate of 70 percent (240 steals out of 311 attempts).
In case you're wondering, Brock was successful 69 percent of the time (938 steals out of 1,245).
How huge is Aaron's legacy? Well, he had his picture hung last year in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. And who else can you name with three statues of himself in three different cities? He has one in Atlanta at Turner Field. He has another one at Miller Park in Milwaukee, where he began his Major League career in 1954 with the Braves before they moved south in 1966, and where he retired a decade later with the Brewers. He also has a statue in Eau Claire, Wis., where he started his pro baseball career.
In addition, the Minor League stadium in Aaron's hometown of Mobile, Ala., is named in his honor. City officials even turned his boyhood house into a museum and placed it next to the ballpark. "I'm telling you. When they moved that house from its original spot, well, it's just very sad seeing your house in which you were born traveling down the highway," Aaron said, shaking his head. "That's where me, my parents and all of my siblings, eight of us, were born."
Aaron has become so many things since his Alabama days of poverty and segregation. Officially, he is a Braves executive. He was the hidden force behind the franchise winning a record 14 consecutive division titles through the early 21st century, because he was the farm director in the 1980s when the nucleus for those teams was built. Unofficially, he is the reincarnation of his hero, Jackie Robinson Jr., who spent his post-baseball years championing the calls for African-Americans in the game beyond the playing field. Aaron has done the same, and he often has done so as a singular voice.
There was the aftermath of Robinson's death in October 1972, when Aaron urged Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and other prominent African-American players to be just as vocal and follow in Robinson's footsteps. Those players were more hesitant. Aaron shrugged with the memory, then recalled how he didn't beg them to reconsider. "I realized the players you just mentioned had other things. Their agenda was made up of other things," Aaron said. "My agenda was made up of something that, well, I think God had given me the talent to play baseball. I had shown people I could play baseball, but I also had other things God had given me."
For instance, there's the way Aaron has dedicated himself to improving the lives of disadvantaged kids.
"I can see children in Chicago, and they know who I am," said Aaron. "That really makes me feel good. It's not the home runs or whatever success I had in baseball. It's what I do today. It's what Henry has done lately, and the foundation I built has really helped me with that, because I'm so close to the children."
About that foundation: It's called the Chasing The Dream Foundation, and Aaron and his wife, Billye, have operated it for decades to help gifted, yet financially challenged youth throughout the nation pursue their passions in life with scholarships. Along with Aaron, the philanthropist, there is Aaron, the entrepreneur, featuring a financial portfolio that has included everything from car dealerships to food franchises.
"I also feel extremely lucky that I serve on four, five or six different boards across the country," Aaron said. "I try to keep myself as active as I possibly can. Maybe too active. My wife and I talk about this all the time, and she says, 'What do you think we should do in the future?' I don't know, but I'm not ready to retire, and she's not ready to retire, so we stay active."
Just last Saturday, the Aarons flew to Louisville for their first trip to the Kentucky Derby. Soon after they landed back in Atlanta Sunday morning, they were on the road to Nashville for a speaking gig at Fisk University.
All along the way, Aaron was hugged, applauded and revered by nearly everybody in his vicinity. This was the antithesis of what he experienced more than four decades ago while battling the combination of pitchers, death threats and hate mail during his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run total of 714. (Barry Bonds later topped Aaron's mark with 762, but what Bonds accomplished deserves an asterisk courtesy of his reported PED use.)
"All the things we're talking about now, such as do they recognize you? Do they know who you are? I'll tell you, I'm 81 years old, and as much as you try to say you need your privacy, you want people to recognize you," Aaron said. "I go back to places like Milwaukee, and I go out to eat, and the first thing people start doing is talking about baseball. 'Oh, I remember when you did this and that, when we won the world championship for the Braves in 1957.' They remember more going back to those days than I do (another chuckle), but it's good. It makes you know you did things people enjoy."
Aaron continues to do such things. You know, enough of them to remain peerless among his peers who are still breathing.