You can go back 40, 50 and even 60 years before NFL honchos met with bosses of that league's players association Tuesday to discuss social activism, and you'll find Hank Aaron in his stoic way blazing a trail in the company of Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and others noted as difference-makers described as athletes during the 20th century. Even so, baseball's standard bearer for home runs did more than his share to merge the sports world with civil rights.
For verification, listen to Aaron put yesterday into today's perspective and prepare to applaud. I did, because our latest conversation during an ongoing series that has lasted years began with a house in Milwaukee.
The way Aaron remembered the whole thing from his home in Atlanta, it was the perfect house. Yes, we're talking about the mid-1950s, and, yes, Aaron is operating with an 83-year-old brain these days, but he still remembers just about everything, and he remembers that house. It had the majority of the stuff he and his first wife, Barbara, wanted during his early days in the Major Leagues with the Milwaukee Braves. The house sat empty in a Milwaukee suburb when the Aarons arrived that Sunday. They went from room to room, but their solitude was interrupted by a party dominated by gin gimlet drinkers across the street and the constant barking of a German shepherd.
After Hank walked around the outside of the house, he sauntered over to the host of the party as the guests watched.
"The dog is still going woof, woof, WOOF," Aaron recalled, with his always captivating baritone voice, "and then I introduce myself, and I tell him my name is Hank Aaron, blah, blah, bah. After that, the guy says, 'Well, don't worry about the dog. He's just not used to seeing black people.'" Aaron laughed, saying, "I told the guy, 'Well, he better get used to this one, because I'm buying this house over here.'"
Now don't miss the big picture. That was Aaron during his early 20s ignoring his rising status back then in supposedly liberal Wisconsin to deal with many of the same issues he faced in the segregated South, where he was born and raised in Mobile, Ala. The younger Aaron morphed into the older Aaron who battled death threats, racists taunts and vicious letters as a black man along the way to surpassing the record of 714 lifetime homers for Babe Ruth, the white icon of the New York Yankees. A few years earlier, Aaron asked prominent black players around the Major Leagues to join him as a spokesperson for equality in baseball and elsewhere when that role was vacated after the 1972 death of Jackie Robinson, Aaron's idol. When some of his peers declined, Aaron shrugged and stayed true to his convictions. He did so with dignity on the field, where his final total of 755 homers were just part of the reason he ranks as one of baseball's all-time complete players. The rest of Hank being Hank involves off the field, where his charitable ways are numerous when it comes to the financial, the physical and the spiritual.
If that isn't splendid enough for a man who has spent his lifetime putting actions where his words are, former Braves owner Ted Turner gave Aaron an official platform to remain Hank after he retired following the 1976 season. That's when Aaron became an executive for Turner's franchise, and even though Turner hasn't been in charge of the Braves for a couple of decades, Aaron remains in the Atlanta front office, still offering his considerable baseball advice and still doing so while speaking his mind about anything.
Take the flag controversy, for instance, that has many NFL players and others following Colin Kaepernick's lead by protesting social injustice in various ways during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Aaron hasn't a problem with athletes or anybody else using their Constitutional right to express political views in peaceful ways, but he does have issues with something else.
"I wish players, owners and people overall would be more interested in trying to help those in holes and trenches," Aaron said as an accomplished philanthropist who works in conjunction with his current wife, Billye, through his Chasing The Dream Foundation that has given millions of dollars for decades to underprivileged youngsters looking to further their education. "I think we still have a lot of problems in this world, and you look at it. I mean, there's so much money now in sports. These kids are making a lot, and the owners are making a lot, and many of them don't care about what's happening. That's true for a lot of people. You look at what's going on in Puerto Rico, and I played over there, so I know what kind of a country that is. They need help, but you still have people looking out for themselves. So people ask, do I think things are better than they were in the past? No, I don't think so."
Which brings me to this: For those who believe this marriage between professional athletes and social consciousness began last autumn, when Kaepernick sparked a national debate by kneeling during the national anthem in order to raise awareness about inequality in this country, there was Sept. 23, 1957. Early that morning in Little Rock, Ark., nine black teenagers tried to integrate Central High School. They were rushed through a back door by police after an angry mob of more than 1,000 whites sought to overtake the building in an attempt to do more than just greet the new students.
Later that evening, Aaron walked to the plate at Milwaukee County Stadium in the bottom of the 11th inning against Billy Muffett of the St. Louis Cardinals, and with two outs and Johnny Logan on first, he ripped a walk-off homer over the center-field wall to give the Braves the National League pennant. Those among the overwhelmingly white crowd screamed forever. Their 23-year-old hero -- who couldn't vote and couldn't eat or drink in the same public areas as whites back home in the South -- was carried off the field for the only time during his legendary 23 seasons. Most of the shoulders he rode toward the dugout belonged to white teammates.
"When I look back, it was such a great year for me since I was doing a bunch of things like that," Aaron said of his only NL MVP Award-winning season, courtesy of his Major League-leading 44 homers and 132 RBIs. Stan Musial hit 29 points better than Aaron that year, so he wasn't terribly close to grabbing the league's Triple Crown with his .322 batting average. Even so, Aaron also led baseball that year in total bases and positive vibes. After his pennant clincher put the Braves in a World Series they would win against the New York Yankees with Aaron excelling at the plate (.393, three homers, seven RBIs), he was greeted at his locker by nearly half of Milwaukee County.
Aaron remembered that scene this week, and he still hasn't forgotten his feelings regarding a couple of other things after what was his 109th homer in the Major Leagues pushed the Braves into their first World Series since they moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953.
"Yeah, [the] home run was a great thrill for me, but the greatest thrill I had with that whole situation came the next day, because somebody had gotten a call that I had been asked to be on The Ed Sullivan Show," Aaron said. Sullivan wanted the Braves outfielder to fly to New York for the telecast, and he offered to pay him $200 for the appearance. "I went to [Braves manager] Fred Haney, and I just told him that I'd like to be on the Ed Sullivan Show. I mean, I said, 'Oh, I sure would like to be on the Ed Sullivan Show,' and he said, 'What are you talking about? You're going to play in a game tomorrow night.' Then he said, 'Bob Buhl has a chance to win 19 games, and I said to myself, 'I'll be damned. He's not going to let me be on the Ed Sullivan Show.'"
Aaron chuckled, but he turned serious when we discussed that 60-year-old day in September featuring the contrast of Milwaukee fans hugging a black man who faced prejudice trying to buy a house in a white neighborhood and of the ugliness involving a high school in Little Rock that nevertheless created heroes and heroines through those courageous black students. "Whenever Bud Selig introduces me, he always brings that up, that both of those events happened on the same day," Aaron said of the former Major League Baseball Commissioner and his longtime friend. Then Aaron sighed before delivering his other huge memory from his pennant clincher, because this one still tugs at his soul.
"I think about it now. I think about the times I played there in Milwaukee and about the great seasons I had and the things I accomplished while I was there, and I keep wondering about something," Aaron said, pausing. "I'm wondering what all of that did to help some of the black people in Milwaukee. I was very concerned with them. I was concerned with how the city was addressing black issues. Back in those days, especially in 1957, with me having the great year that I had, I kept looking back and asking, 'Is this helping? Did what I do as a baseball player this year help the black people in Milwaukee?' Did it help them understand there still were problems in the black community in Milwaukee, and that was a concern of mine more than anything I was doing on the field.
"Andy [Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Atlanta mayor and lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] and I talk about this often, and I tell him that I wish I could have been brave enough and wise enough back then to do more than what I did. And he always says that, given the circumstances, you guys were about as great as you could be."
I'm not sure about the credentials of all of those "guys" Young referenced during his chats with Aaron, but I know about one of them. Let's just say Hank also is the undisputed king of humility, which means he really was "brave enough and wise enough" back then, and nothing has changed.