Except for a fractured ankle late in his rookie season of 1954, Hank Aaron was known as one of baseball’s iron men, rarely sidelined throughout his 23-year major league career. So it was especially troubling to the Atlanta Braves legend when early in his retirement he suffered from growing knee pain.
Aaron spent a year taking pills and getting cortisone shots, searching in vain for a solution for what was diagnosed as osteoarthritis of the knee.
Finally, his doctor gave him an injection of Synvisc-One, a nonsystemic therapy, to which his knee responded.
To bring attention to the condition, Aaron, 76, will walk in the Arthritis Walk Saturday in Atlanta and is encouraging others to support the fight by joining www.teamhank.com. For every person who does, the drug company Genzyme will make a donation to the Arthritis Foundation.
Q: Were your knees talking to you toward the end of your playing days?
A: It was hurting me somewhat, but it bothered me much more after my career was over with. Then, it was like I was ready to go on the disabled list.
Q: Did your family have a history of arthritis?
A: My mother had arthritis very, very bad. It was right in the tops of both hands. Sometimes she couldn't pick things up. It was just awful.
Q: How bad did your knee pain get on a scale of 1 to 10?
A: It was almost 9. I couldn't drive from my house to the ballpark. I couldn't move my legs up and down. It had gotten to be bone on bone. The sad part was that it kept me from doing things I wanted to do.
I realized I never was going to be a Tiger Woods, but I wanted to be able to walk the [golf] course at least for nine holes. I was totally embarrassed. After playing baseball for 23 years, then all of a sudden you’re almost totally incapacitated.
Q: Do you think your knee trouble was caused by baseball or heredity?
A: A little bit of both, mostly heredity.
Q: With your osteoarthritis now controlled, do you suffer from other baseball-related injuries?
A: I was extremely lucky to play as long as I did [without lingering issues]. You know, some guys, like my homeboy [former San Francisco Giant and fellow Mobile native Willie] McCovey, he's had 12 or 13 operations and he gets around on crutches. My injuries are nil by comparison.
Q: What do you do to stay in shape now?
A: When I'm home for any length of time, I usually work out at the stadium. Every morning I'm here at 5:30 or 6 with the trainer.
Q: Can Jason Heyward lead the Braves to the promised land this year?
A: I don't know if that part is going to happen [he chuckles].
But I think that this club has brought some new vigorousness to all of Atlanta. Not to take anything away from the Glavines and Smoltzes, but people in the stands like to see an infusion of young talent coming into the game.
I think with Jason, [Tommy] Hanson and some of the other kids on the club, people can identify. They’ve demonstrated that they belong here. It’s just a matter of time before they themselves start winning championships.
Check-in 9 a.m. Sat. 5/22/10; walk begins at 10. Atlantic Station. www.arthritis.org.