At Hall, Aaron embodies power of baseball

July 29th, 2018

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- All night long, the people in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum were drawn to the table at which the great Henry Aaron sat in his wheelchair, next to his wife Billye.
So many Hall of Famers were in attendance at the reception on this night, after Sheldon Ocker had been inducted into the writer's wing of the Hall, and Bob Costas had given a wonderful speech about the enduring magic of baseball as he was honored with this year's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters. This is always an occasion on which it seems as if so many plaques in this place had come down off the walls and come alive.

Somehow, though, there were all the other Hall of Famers, and there was Aaron, 84, as much the conscience and soul of his game as anyone alive, as much the heir to Jackie Robinson as any ballplayer of baseball's Greatest Generation who came after Robinson.
There is the old line from the French writer Jacques Barzun -- quoted more often in the past than now -- about how to know the heart and mind of America, you need to learn baseball. It is a sweet, lovely sentiment, if one that seems to grow increasingly hollow -- simply because hardly anybody seems to understand America these days. But perhaps this is a better way to look at things:
To understand baseball, you have to understand Cooperstown, N.Y.
You have to understand days and nights like this, and Hall of Fame weekend, when the sport and new inductees are honored at the postcard ballpark a few blocks away, and the Hall itself, at the corner of Main Street and Fair. And on Saturday night in Cooperstown you had to appreciate the way the fans and the other Hall of Famers kept finding their way to the corner of the occasion, one brightened by an old-fashioned thing called grace, where they could find Aaron.
"I'm still here," Aaron said at one point, after Dave Cohen, once the Yankees' play-by-play man on television, had stopped by and asked to have a picture taken with the guy who once hit 755 home runs in the big leagues.
Dave Winfield, who had been sitting next to Aaron for a while, smiled and said, "Baseball's the same as this man sitting next to me: Not going anywhere."
"They talk about the power I had hitting a baseball," Aaron said. "But these ceremonies are about the power of baseball."
This isn't to suggest that the game doesn't have to keep evolving. Of course it does, and it will. The 10th Commissioner, Rob Manfred, is right to be as committed as he is to speeding up the pace of play, in a world that keeps moving faster and faster. He's right to be concerned about shifts and all the strikeouts, and fewer balls being put in play as everybody except Mr. Aaron is swinging away for the fences.
And everyone involved in the game, from Manfred on down, has to continue to be committed to more African-American participation in a sport that gave the country Robinson, Aaron and Willie Mays. Aaron himself has spoken up often, and eloquently, about how there aren't enough African-American players. When I mentioned to him on Saturday that as a child I had been lucky enough to be in Cooperstown with my father the day Robinson was inducted along with Bob Feller.
"Without [Robinson]," Aaron said, "I wouldn't be here."
He is still here. He was on the stage on Saturday afternoon along with other men who have already been inducted into the Hall, and the six men who were inducted on Sunday: Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Trevor Hoffman, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.

When Costas stepped to the microphone in front of these men on Saturday, he spoke of a "lifetime of memories." The day was filled with those. The rooms of the Hall were filled with those on Saturday night, and outside the streets were still full of fans in their Tigers jerseys for Morris and Trammel, and Angels jerseys for Vlad, and Indians jerseys for Thome, and all these Braves fans walking up and down Main Street in the early evening because this was Chipper's moment in Cooperstown.
Nothing against the other sports Halls of Fame. Nothing against Canton, or Springfield, Mass. But this weekend in Cooperstown is different. This Hall of Fame is different. Baseball is still different, if flawed the way the other sports are flawed.
There was a small parade after Saturday's ceremonies, as the Hall of Famers were brought to Main and Fair, and the reception, greeted by cheers coming from both sides of the barricades set up on Main, where people were lined up five and six deep. But the real parade to see on Saturday night was the parade past Aaron. He was 13 when Robinson made his debut in April 1947. He came to the big leagues himself seven years later, and he hit the first of 755 home runs. There are other members of baseball's Greatest Generation. None greater than the great Henry Aaron. Still here.