A Final Interview With Hank Aaron: “I Recognized That I Had a Gift”

Here is an excerpt from an article by based on a conversation that Douglas Brinkley had with Henry Aaron just before the Hall of Famer’s death. It was published in The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription options, please click here.

Credit: David Goldman/Associated Press

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No matter what happened in America, his greatness still shone.

I was born in Atlanta in 1960, and when the Braves moved to town from Milwaukee after the 1965 season, Hank Aaron became my all-seasons hero.

That didn’t seem unusual in my family, because my New Jersey-bred mother and Pennsylvania-raised father considered themselves civil rights foot soldiers. But it was anathema to my white classmates. I’ll never forget a day in spring 1966 when we picked the Braves players we wanted to be for a game of sandlot ball, and I picked Aaron. The other boys chose white players like Joe Torre, Denis Menke and Phil Niekro. When I came up to bat, the pitcher called out the N-word and tried to hit me with the ball, and everyone on the field laughed.

That evening my mother, a high school English teacher, spoke to me about the disease of racism in a serious way, encouraging my admiration for Hammerin’ Hank and later hanging a brand-new poster of him on my bedroom wall.

Through the rest of the 1960s, we went to Braves home games, and I’d wave my homemade placards with slogans like “The Hammer Nails It” or “Aaron is RBI King!” I was in the stands on July 14, 1968, when Aaron became the first Braves player to hit his 500th career home run. It was only three months after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis, and the sight of Aaron out on the field — still standing tall, still making sensational plays in right field and outbatting the best white athletes — gave me, even as an 8 year old, a sense that the world was still turning, and greatness still shone.

That feeling stayed with me when I got to know Aaron later in life — well enough to appreciate his humble and low-key demeanor, and well enough that I knew not to call him Hank.

And it helps explain why I was so thrilled, in early November 2020, to visit with him and his wife, Billye, at their sprawling lakeside home in Atlanta for what would be my final interview with him. The clock was ticking toward Election Day, and the Aarons had been working and praying overtime for Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump. Over coffee we spoke about the greatness of Kamala Harris, the death of John Lewis, the excellence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the poor health of Ted Turner (“A rich guy exactly the opposite of Trump. He’s share and share alike”) and the couple’s friendships with four previous presidential couples, the Carters, Clintons, Bushes and Obamas.

“I don’t know of anybody,” he said, “I mean anybody, that is smarter than Jimmy Carter.”

And of course, we talked baseball. Across a 25-year professional career, Aaron exhibited unshakable discipline, bedrock humility, stark professionalism and the ability to not hold grudges for long.

By the time he hit his historic 715th home run in 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s record, my family had moved from Atlanta to Ohio, so I had to watch on TV instead of from the stands at Fulton County stadium. And I remember being nervous. As Aaron had chased Ruth’s record, he’d received thousands of racist death threats, and as he trotted around the bases that day, I feared someone would shoot him dead. It was a fear he endured as well.

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Here is a direct link to the comlete article.

Mr. Brinkley is the author of “Rosa Parks: A Life.”

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