When Hank Aaron passed away at the age of 86 earlier this year, I was saddened by the news but also compelled to share a few experiences I had with the man who broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 homers in the face of horrible racism, the man who still holds baseball’s RBI record with 2,297 and who amassed 3,771 hits, good for third most in the history of the game.
I understand that Aaron didn’t play for the Yankees, and that this is Yankees Magazine. But he was one of the most transcendent athletes, and he was a symbol of how a ballplayer can also be a hero to fans of any team. In my opinion, Hank Aaron was an American hero for the way he dealt with so much hate, always remaining dignified and resilient.
But if only Aaron had hit two fewer home runs in his illustrious career. If only two of the home runs he hit in 23 Major League seasons could have traveled a couple fewer feet and not cleared the fence. If that had been the case, he would have tallied 753 home runs, not 755, and this story -- or at least part of it -- would have even more of a “wow” factor.
On July 15, 2008, Major League Baseball held its 79th All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, which was scheduled to close at the end of the season, and before the All-Stars took the field, one of the greatest collections of players ever assembled in one place gathered in a tent beyond the Stadium’s center-field wall. There were nearly 50 icons in total, all wearing suits with matching patches that read “All-Star Game Hall of Fame Celebration.” Among the group of Hall of Famers awaiting their cue to walk onto the field for an extravagant pregame ceremony were Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Ernie Banks and Aaron.
During the precious few moments before the group took the field, the former players meandered into and around Monument Park, many of them alongside Berra or Whitey Ford, who served as unofficial tour guides to the Yankees’ past. I had the distinct opportunity to be out there, to chronicle this historic moment for the second of two books that I co-wrote about the original Yankee Stadium.
Not far from where I stood, Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello was waiting for me near the monuments of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. We had two goals that evening: bring Cal Ripken Jr. over to Gehrig’s monument for a special photo, and convince Aaron to pose for an even more exclusive photo with Ruth’s monument.
I had worked in the Orioles’ public relations department at the end of Ripken’s career, and I was pretty confident that he would take the stroll over to the shrine honoring the man whose record of 2,130 consecutive games he broke. I approached Ripken, shared a few memories from Baltimore, and got the green light.
“I’ll walk over in a few minutes,” Ripken said.
I was more nervous about approaching Aaron. As soon as one person left his side, another showed up.
Among this group of legends, he still managed to hold a pedestal all his own. Everyone wanted to talk to him -- including me. When I finally got my chance, I cautiously proposed my idea.
“A photo of you with Babe Ruth’s monument will live on forever,” I said. “Please consider taking a few minutes to pose for this indelible image.”
At first, Aaron didn’t say anything while quietly contemplating the idea. I knew that celebrating the feat of breaking Ruth’s all-time home record in 1974 still had to be difficult for the man who endured so much pain during the pursuit. Unlike when Ripken eclipsed Gehrig and the entire country congratulated him, Aaron dealt with some of the ugliest and scariest sides of humanity at a time when he should have been universally honored.
Playing for the Braves for the first 21 seasons of his career, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta, Aaron approached Ruth’s record of 714 home runs under a curtain of extreme bigotry. He received thousands of pieces of hate mail and was on the receiving end of death threats for years. Through all of the hate he dealt with as a Black man approaching the record of a white folk hero, Aaron continued to persevere. He remained level-headed. For the Alabama native and one-time Negro Leagues star, who had dealt with racism his entire life, including when he was coming up through the minors and was routinely taunted at ballparks, that couldn’t have been easy.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of this country,” Aaron told The New York Times in 1994. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
After just a few seconds, Aaron agreed to participate. My memories of the walk with Aaron to Ruth’s monument are special. Getting that time with him was a privilege, and the home run hero’s kindness toward me is what I will remember most. He spoke about playing in the 1957 World Series at Yankee Stadium -- a series the Milwaukee Braves won in seven games behind Aaron’s 11 hits and three home runs -- and how much he enjoyed being back in baseball’s cathedral for its final All-Star Game.
When we got to the monument, Aaron smiled, and like so many other admirers of The Babe, he reached out and touched the bronze bust of the man to whom he was linked for decades. He quickly posed for the photo, and to my surprise, he asked if I would send him a copy of it. Of course, I was more than happy to do that. Before our conversation ended, I asked Aaron a few questions about The House That Ruth Built for the book I was in the process of putting together.
“Playing in a World Series at Yankee Stadium was the greatest moment I ever had,” Aaron told me. “It’s a ballpark that I think, no matter how you look at it, it’s going to go down as one of the most historical places in all of sports. It was a ballpark that scared the hell out of you. Everybody said, ‘Well, you know the shadows are going to come. You’re not going to be able to pick up the ball.’ You’ve got the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and all of those Hall of Famers that played there for many years, and you just felt like if you went into the ninth inning and you’re not five or six runs ahead, that somewhere Babe Ruth was going to blow a ball out of the Stadium or something. But, you know, it was a ballpark that everybody really enjoyed playing in.”
Ripken posed with Gehrig’s monument a few minutes later, and then the massive group of legends walked out to the field together for the start of the ceremony.
When I saw the photo of Aaron for the first time, I was taken aback. It was beautiful, and I believe that it remains one of the most unique shots ever taken of this legendary ballplayer.
A few years later, in 2010, I reached out to Aaron’s agent in an attempt to interview Hammerin’ Hank about Alex Rodriguez, who had just eclipsed the 600-home run plateau. To my surprise, Aaron was scheduled to be in New York soon after I put in the request, and he agreed to meet me at a restaurant where he was going to be for an event.
On that freezing Saturday afternoon in December, I had a long conversation with Aaron about A-Rod for a story that ran in Yankees Magazine the following season. Aaron was as gracious and complimentary about Rodriguez -- one of just five players in history to eclipse 2,000 RBI -- as he had been about Barry Bonds, who broke his career home run record a few years prior.
“I think a lot about how consistent Alex has been in terms of hitting 30 home runs a year for so long,” Aaron said. “But what is more impressive is that he was able to elevate that and hit over 50 home runs more than once.
“Records are made to be broken. That’s what life is all about. Alex works as hard as anyone and because of that, I want him to succeed in everything he does. You have to marvel at the things he’s done on the baseball field.”
My last interview with Aaron came in 2014, and although it was done over the phone, the half hour I spent talking with him about Derek Jeter’s career was still memorable. For a first-person piece in the Derek Jeter Commemorative Edition of Yankees Magazine, which came out during the final week of the Captain’s career, Aaron was as candid as he was insightful.
Before discussing Jeter’s baseball accomplishments, Aaron made a point to share his respect for Jeter as a human being, and that I will never forget.
“When Derek was a young player, I got to meet him at the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park,” Aaron said. “It didn’t surprise me that he was just as I had imagined he would be. He’s a nice person, and that stood out in my mind as much as his consistent approach to the game. Derek has shown me the utmost respect every time I have been around him. He speaks to me as if my career was something that was marvelous.”
Later in our conversation, Aaron shared his thoughts on what he felt propelled Jeter to amass 3,465 hits, ranking him sixth on the all-time list, three spots below himself.
“You don’t see many people in sports that take the game as seriously as Derek,” Aaron said. “Derek has always had the ability to play the game at a high level, but his ability to play the same way every day is remarkable. Without that approach, Derek would not have collected more than 3,000 hits. I had the same attitude when I was playing. There’s always room for improvement, and it was nice to learn that Derek had the same approach as me.”
For as much as my respect for Aaron grew with each of my conversations with him, it was in an interview with the pitcher who gave up the record-breaking 715th home run that I gained an even deeper appreciation for this baseball titan. In 2019, I spent an afternoon in Pasadena, California, with former Yankees pitcher Al Downing for a story in Yankees Magazine. While much of the interview with Downing -- the first Black pitcher to start a game for the Yankees -- was focused on his upbringing in New Jersey and his career in pinstripes, I also asked him about giving up the historic home run to Aaron at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974.
“Hank was a true mentor to a lot of young Black guys coming up through the big leagues,” Downing said. “The day after he hit that home run, Hank called our clubhouse and asked to talk to me. He told me not to feel bad because he was going to break the record anyway, and the fact that the home run came off me didn’t mean that I wasn’t a good pitcher. I thanked him, congratulated him and told him that I respected everything he had done.”
When I think back on the interviews and the All-Star Game photo shoot with Aaron, I’m cognizant of how lucky I was to have been around the longtime home run king and 25-time All-Star. More importantly, I remember that all he ever was in my presence was kind and gracious, devoid of any bitterness during our conversations. After having been through so much unprovoked hatred, that was a defining characteristic.
To this day, I cherish the interactions I had with Aaron, and when I look at the framed print I have of him with Ruth’s monument, I realize that it’s got all of the “wow” factor in the world, simply because of who the subject of the image is and where it was taken. My only wish would have been for Aaron to have been just a bit less accommodating. If he had made Petrozzello and I wait two more minutes before posing for that photo in Monument Park, then the huge clock on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard above Ruth’s monument would have read “7:55.”
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the magazine’s April 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.