One of the more memorable moments of my career occurred more than 40 years ago when I, then a Newsday sports writer, interviewed Henry Aaron at his Atlanta Braves locker. I listened intently, as he spoke of the pressure and racial bigotry that he faced during the homestretch of his bid to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record (714).
His eyes danced nervously about the room, but he spoke calmly and passionately with an inner-pain that was palpable. Aaron said he had received thousands of hate-filled letters, but that the racial taunts from hometown fans in the left field stands were at times more menacing. Braves’ officials arranged at times for two uniformed policemen to sit in the rear of the stands for Aaron’s protection.
“They are on me every day,’ Aaron said. “Yesterday, the day before, I just can’t figure it. I just want them to respect me like a man, the way they respect any common white man.”
When Aaron tied Ruth’s record on April 5, 1974, I wrote a Newsday column in which Aaron, a very private person, revealed an admirable level of honesty and fearlessness rarely displayed by a sports superstar.
The column, which follows, is reprinted with Newsday’s permission.
“This Is America … It’s for Everybody”
By Doug Smith
“If I was white, all America would be proud of me, but I’m black …”
Henry Louis Aaron, July 1973
Not with bitterness, not with animosity, but with the same sober approach to an opposing pitcher, Henry Aaron stays in the box on the subject of race. He always has.
But for many years, years he spent in the shadow of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and teammate Eddie Mathews, Aaron’s views were seldom publicized. He contributed to the lack of publicity by being privately aloof, a posture he tried to maintain – without much success – even during the last few months of last season. During his 20-year career, he earned the reputation as a quiet loner, and a man who displayed an explosive temper when pushed too far.
Explaining why he didn’t participate actively in the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s, Aaron said in 1966, “I feel that the only effective movements are the nonviolent movements and I can’t guarantee nonviolence. I don’t feel nonviolent about it.”
An Atlanta fan, who had been taunting Aaron from the right field stands during a game in May of 1973 almost discovered how violent Aaron could be. Aaron approached the stands at the close of the game and challenged the fan to a fistfight. The fan rejected the offer.
“The only thing I’m concerned about is that they don’t call me racial names,” he said. “I can take the booing and other kind of yelling … You have to be black in America to realize how sick it is.”
Aaron has reached a level of success and respect reserved for the super-talented few. He has discovered that it can be a shaky level for blacks. “They don’t give me a bad time because I’m somebody special,” he said. “But that doesn’t help my brothers and sisters and anything that happens to any member of my race happens to me. I know how it feels because sometimes people don’t know who I am.”
His youthful exposure to a life of segregation had much to do with shaping his attitudes. He was born in Mobile, Ala. 40 years ago, and broke into the major leagues a few years after Jackie Robinson. Unlike Robinson’s, his career has been devoid of controversy and excitement but not consistency.
For the past two years with his chase of Ruth’s record receiving attention, Aaron’s racial views are becoming known. He has been quick to point out what he considers even the subtle forms of prejudice he has encountered.
He noted, for example, that when Harmon Killebrew hit home run No. 500 President Nixon considered it worth a congratulatory phone call. But when Aaron hit No. 700 he didn’t receive a phone call from Nixon or from baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. “Not even a postcard,” Aaron said.
Eight years after Aaron campaigned to get a black hired as a manager, there are still none. There is cynicism in his voice when he talks about this. “I’ve tried to talk to different managers and different owners,” he said. “They always say they’ll hire one when they find one qualified. They say (blacks) don’t have any experience. There are a lot of white managers who never had experience. Yogi (Berra) didn’t have any.”
Despite his aggressive stance on the subject, Aaron isn’t considered a serious threat by whites. Nor is he seen as a prime mover among black revolutionaries, perhaps because of his independence and refusal to participate actively in organized racial movements, except the NAACP.
Aaron still manages to confront the reality of his true status with the integrationist dream of a better life for all blacks in this country. Before tying Ruth’s record, he said the achievement would mean something to every kid, “black or white, but a little more to the black race. It was such a long time before we were accepted into the game. But I hope both black and whites are pulling for me. “This is America – it’s not just for blacks, not just for whites. It’s for everybody.”
©1974 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission