At 80, Aaron remains a towering baseball icon
Former players and coaches share their favorite stories about the Hall of Famer
ATLANTA -- As Hank Aaron strolled through the Braves' clubhouse at Turner Field late last week, he still possessed that dignified grace he gained on his way to becoming baseball's home run king and one of those few elite legends that are revered by both fans and fellow Hall of Famers.
Sixty years have passed since Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves as a wide-eyed 20-year-old rookie outfielder, who would go on to best Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record and establish himself as somebody who is still widely considered one of the top five baseball players to ever grace the game.
While time has eroded some of that impressive strength that helped Aaron total 755 home runs over 23 big league seasons, it has had little impact on his passion to continue living life to the fullest.
As Aaron turned 80 on Wednesday, he continued to serve as an inspirational figure to those who know all that he accomplished during his career and to those who have continued to watch him display a youthful exuberance on a daily basis.
"My personal experiences with him are great," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You don't realize he is 80 years old. He's still active and smart. He keeps himself in good shape."
Aaron still works out at Turner Field approximately three times a week during the early morning hours. Some of the current players and coaches occasionally cross paths with him. But Aaron is often done with his workout before many of these individuals arrive at the stadium.
"I think it's just the competitive nature that these guys have," Gonzalez said. "Even at 80 years old, they're still looking to compete, work out and just break a sweat. I end up talking to him for five or six minutes each time I see him, because I don't want to bother him. But it makes you feel good seeing him. I love having him around."
Former Braves manager Bobby Cox remembers arriving at Turner Field around 7:30 a.m. one morning about 15 years ago to begin preparing for an afternoon game. As he sat in his office, Cox heard a series of cracks and was bewildered by the possibility that one of his players had arrived that early to begin taking batting practice.
When Cox walked down the hall and opened the door to the indoor batting cage, he found Aaron, who was in his late 60s, lining a series of pitches being delivered by the pitching machine.
"Somebody said if Henry was playing today, he probably couldn't hit 44 home runs," Aaron's longtime Braves teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Phil Niekro said. "I asked them, 'Well, why not?' They said, 'Well, he's 80 years old, he'd probably only hit half that many.'"
There will be plenty of reason for the baseball world to take time this year to reminisce about Aaron's accomplishments. As the Braves open the home portion of their schedule on April 8, the organization will also take time to recognize this day as the 40th anniversary of the day Aaron bested the Babe by hitting his 715th career home run.
"I've always had so much respect for Henry, because he played the game the way it was supposed to be played," Niekro said. "Everybody knows that he was one of the best to ever play the game."
Once he concluded his playing career after the 1976 season, Aaron joined the Braves' front office and oversaw the Minor League system.
Coming off a rough 1985 season with Class A Sumter, former Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke returned to Minor League Spring Training the next year knowing that he needed to fight to remain in the organization. After a few weeks in camp, he was alarmed when Smoky Burgess instructed him to go see Aaron.
With tears in his eyes and the assumption he was being sent home, Lemke reluctantly entered Aaron's office.
"I said, 'Mr. Aaron, Smokey said you wanted to see me,'" Lemke remembers. "He said, 'Yeah, you forgot to sign your contract.' So I immediately signed it without saying another word and then ran back on the field. That was the only time I think Hank ever asked for my autograph."
While he has not been an active member of Atlanta's front office for more than two decades, Aaron has continued to assist the organization while serving as senior vice president. At the same time, he has continued to serve as one of the game's top ambassadors while assisting his good friend Commissioner Bud Selig with various endeavors.
Selig, President Bill Clinton, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young were among the dignitaries who came to Atlanta to celebrate Aaron's 75th birthday five years ago.
As he spoke to the crowd gathered for the celebration at the Marriott Marquis, Clinton once again thanked Aaron for helping him carry the traditionally Republican state of Georgia in 1992 and gain his first term in the White House.
When Clinton visited Atlanta a week before the election, he spoke to approximately 25,000, half of which he believes showed up just because Aaron was also on the stage. Clinton said Aaron has never allowed him to forget that he won Georgia by 13,000 votes, which would have essentially accounted for that half that showed up to see the baseball legend.
Echoing a sentiment held by countless baseball fans, Clinton concluded his speech five years ago by looking at Aaron and saying, "We all have to acknowledge that you have given us more than we could ever give you."