Hank Aaron: A humble Atlanta hero

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Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently attended the 80th birthday celebration of baseball great and humanitarian Hank Aaron. Watch as friends and colleagues of Aaron talk about his humility.

This column was originally published on Feb. 16, 2014 after an event honoring Hank Aaron.

WASHINGTON — It’s nearly impossible to capture the stature of Hank Aaron as American icon, Atlanta community pillar and the man who broke the most revered record in sports. It’s certainly hard for me, a lifelong baseball fan and an unabashed admirer of Aaron. But let’s try.

Last weekend Aaron was honored on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Major League Baseball and its commissioner held a reception at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House. The Smithsonian unveiled his portrait, and at the public event hundreds had to be turned away for lack of space to accommodate them. A celebrity-sprinkled crowd of about 350 attended a black-tie dinner at the National Portrait Gallery.

But nothing demonstrated Aaron’s stature more than this:

At the black-tie event, seated near the back and just one table from me was Franco Harris. If you’re not a sports fan, here’s what you need to know about Harris: he was a star running back for the Pittsburgh Steeler teams of the late 1970s that won the Super Bowl four times. He’s in the pro football hall of fame.

In almost any room, Harris is THE celebrity.

But on this night, as the event ended and the crowd slowly exited, Harris worked his way to the front of the room. Finally he arrived near the dais.

He wanted to get a picture with Hank Aaron.

I noticed because I was doing the same thing, as were many others at the event.

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Much has been chronicled about Aaron’s historic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record, which Aaron broke on April 8, 1974.

There were many angles to the story of Aaron’s pursuit, and it was a journey that captured the nation’s attention.

He was chasing the great Ruth. The New York Yankee. The embodiment of American sport and celebrity. The symbol of baseball’s golden age.

It was North against South. An ambitious, upstart city taking something away from the country’s biggest city. It was Atlanta, the city that had stolen the Braves from Milwaukee, establishing itself as a true Major League town.

And it was a black man looking to better the record of a white man, at a time when tensions around race stubbornly refused to fall away. And that part, as has been well-documented, was ugly.

At the center of this uniquely American historical drama stood the calm and stoic main character: a humble ballplayer from Mobile, Ala.

Anyone who knew baseball could see Aaron would break the record. That was clear for some time, and especially when the previous season ended. And there is no argument about whether he was a better all-around player than Ruth.

But when he broke the record, the world didn’t yet know how well-suited he was for his role. How gracefully he would grab hold of history. And how he would carry its responsibility for four decades with a pristine rectitude.

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It became clear during the events around Aaron’s 80th birthday just how deeply respected he is, in baseball, in business and in the Atlanta community. He has never let us down, an exceedingly rare thing among celebrities, especially those in sports. Just ask someone from Cincinnati about the pain Pete Rose’s descent caused that community.

Aaron’s stature has only grown over the years, as the depth of his character has become clearer. His home run record is even more respected now because of Major League Baseball’s struggle to ban performance enhancing drugs.

At each event last weekend, as speaker after speaker lauded him, Aaron thanked them.

A pantheon of African-American baseball stars got up and talked about how Aaron had inspired them.

When his turn to speak came, he didn’t talk about baseball or his records. He didn’t recount the ugly racism expressed in letters he received as he pursued the record. He never emphasized the exhausting scrutiny he endured.

He spoke of his parents. He said he wished they could be there. “They always taught me and all of my siblings that the thing I want you to remember is, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” he said. “That’s been my philosophy.”

He remarked on all the good fortune he’d enjoyed, and how so many fine people had been part of his life. He said he was glad they could be there.

And he took a picture with Franco Harris, and anyone else who asked. Including me. And for all of us, it was the thrill of a lifetime to meet the guy who will always be a hero.

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