Aaron took Jackie's baton and ran with it
Following Robinson's death, it wasn't always easy continuing his legacy
In many ways, Hank Aaron is Jackie Robinson.
Nothing demonstrates this more than what occurred several days after Robinson's shocking death at 53 in October 1972. With an aching heart, Aaron grieved over the loss of his baseball hero while calling other prominent African-American players of that time: Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, a slew of others. Aaron's message was simple: Now that Robinson is gone, it is time for the rest of us to follow in his spike steps.
But it was not so simple. What Robinson did was unfathomable. After he retired following the 1956 season as the man who broke baseball's color barrier, he sought to push the game toward diversity beyond just the playing field. Robinson wanted African-Americans in the game as third-base coaches, managers, scouts, general managers, presidents and owners. There were no African-Americans in any of those categories back then.
So, between more calls with mixed results, Aaron began to reflect on what baseball needed to do in conjunction with society to continue Robinson's legacy, and then he put down the phone.
He decided to become Jackie.
"Yes, I did, and I did [initially want others to help me]," Aaron told me during an exclusive interview for CNN. "Then I thought that, 'If you aren't going to do it right, don't do it at all.' I realized the players you just mentioned had other things, their agenda was made up of other things. My agenda was made up of something that I think God had given me the talent to play baseball. I had shown them I could play baseball, but I had other things he had given me. He wanted me to show other people that giving me the opportunity to do something else as far as the front office. Other people didn't have the means to do that."
Aaron did. He had the will, and he also had the support. For one, during Aaron's early years of retirement after his 23 seasons spent evolving into baseball's all-time home run king, he had the backing of those who ran the same Braves organization he helped make famous in Milwaukee and later in Atlanta. Aaron eventually became the director of a farm system that set the foundation for those Braves teams during the early 1990s that began a record string of 14 consecutive division titles. His support grew when Bud Selig became Major League Baseball's Commissioner. They've been friends since the 1950s, when Aaron was a star for Selig's hometown Milwaukee Braves. Not only that, Selig was among those who realized early that Aaron had morphed into Robinson on purpose.
I'm thinking of Robinson, Aaron, Selig and the rest, because another Jackie Robinson Day has arrived. It's courtesy of Selig's enlightened edict 17 years ago on another April 15 that Jackie Robinson Day now ranks with Opening Day and Fourth of July as the most magical days of a baseball season. It's just that, in contrast to those other days, Jackie Robinson Day is more. It's even more than all players in the Major Leagues wearing the retired No. 42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend on April 15.
Jackie Robinson Day is an American holiday, or it should be.
When Robinson trotted onto Ebbets Field for the first time, he was the spark that ignited the inferno that integrated the whole nation. This was 18 years before the Voting Rights Act and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act. This was even eight years before Rosa Parks decided she was too tired to move to the back of a nearly empty city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Further to the south in Alabama, when Robinson became Parks before Parks, there was a teenager in Mobile named Henry Louis Aaron who could tell you every moment that Robinson breathed. So it was Aaron's destiny to skip school one day to peek at Robinson speaking at a drug store in Mobile when his Dodgers were in town for an exhibition game.
Years later, Aaron signed with the Braves, and even before he made his Major League debut in 1954 after the team moved from Boston to Milwaukee, he encountered Robinson beyond just a peek.
"Many, many times," Aaron said during our CNN interview. "In fact, I was fortunate enough when I signed my contract with the Boston Braves, that I was able to play exhibition games against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And who do I play against but Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe. We played maybe eight, nine, maybe 10 games against each other. One game in Mobile, Birmingham, Nashville or someplace like that, and let me say, it was a thrill."
Then came that October afternoon in 1972, when Major League Baseball invited Robinson to speak before a national television audience on the field in Cincinnati before the opening game of the World Series. No one knew at the time he was dying from diabetes and a damaged heart. Robinson also was going blind, but he still could see the game had yet to hire a black manager, or even a black third-base coach.
He urged baseball to do both of those things -- and more.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Robinson's replacement was watching it all from the stands while trying to control his emotions.
"It did affect me, and that speech … I was there when he made that speech," Aaron said, before adding with a quick sigh, "and a lot of people who listened to that paid no attention to that, but he had his reasons for saying that, because there was no improvement in minorities in baseball besides on the playing field. He wanted to see minorities elevated on the playing field and the front office. He felt like one step at a time, and we had gotten to the point where we had shown everyone we could play the game. So he was telling everybody, 'Just give us a chance now to be coaches and instructors and the front office.'"
That chance later came through African-Americans such as Cito Gaston managing the Blue Jays to consecutive World Series titles, Kenny Williams taking the White Sox all the way to a World Series championship as a general manager and Magic Johnson serving as a part owner of the Dodgers. There also was the rise in recent years from zero to much more than that in the number of African-Americans in scouting, finance and other front-office positions.
Still, there is much to do to fulfill Robinson's legacy, with the number of African-American players dropping from 27 percent or so during the mid-1970s to below eight percent these days.
Baseball has Jackie Robinson Day, though, and baseball also has Aaron, a powerful icon, even with a surgically repaired hip at 80. They both are reminders of where the game has been, and where the game has to go.